Halifax planners shut down a public meeting this week after a “NIMBY with a megaphone” took over.

The municipality held a public open house about the West End Mall Future Growth Node at the Bethany United Church on Joseph Howe Drive Wednesday night. The municipality declared a few of those future growth nodes in the Centre Plan, like the former Penhorn Mall site in Dartmouth.

As the Halifax Examiner reported in 2021, one of the 10 property owners on the west end site wants to redevelop the block bounded by Mumford, the CN Rail cut, and Leppert Street. Cushman and Wakefield made the application on behalf of OPB Realty Inc., the real estate arm of the Ontario Pension Board:

Cushman and Wakefield is proposing to remove some of the mall buildings on the property; create new streets; build a new underground transit terminal; and put up 15 residential towers to the maximum height of 90 metres for a total of more than 5,500 new residential units.

“This would translate to a population of 12,500 people at full build out, and a density of 867 people per hectare (86,700 people per square kilometre). This is much higher than other large-scale developments underway or proposed,” municipal planner Sean Gillis wrote in the staff report to council.

“By comparison, the proposal for Shannon Park is for a density of 20,000 people per square kilometre and the highest densities currently existing in the South End of Halifax are about 15,000 people per square kilometre.”

Halifax Water hasn’t raised any concerns about that level of density, Gillis wrote, and the area is well-served by transit and transportation networks generally.

“Staff suggest from a transportation and servicing point-of-view, that this site is one of the best places in HRM to consider very high densities,” Gillis wrote.

During the first phase of the redevelopment, OPB Realty would focus mostly on the area around the Mumford Terminal. That part of the property currently houses a Tim Hortons and stores like Moores.

A site plan shows an overhead view of the west end of Halifax, with the Halifax Shopping Centre and other buildings noted.
A site plan shows Phase 1, with buildings A1-4 near the Mumford Terminal, and B1 and B2 behind Sobeys. Credit: HRM/Cushman & Wakefield/architectsAlliance

Those would be replaced with four residential towers 31 storeys high, containing a total of 1,064 homes.

Phase 1 would also add two residential towers to the area behind Sobeys with a total of 774 homes.

‘A really fantastic place to add density’

Coun. Shawn Cleary, who represents residents of the area, said the development is “an exciting opportunity.”

“Because unlike any of the other future growth nodes that we’ve been looking at so far, this one has the potential for the most complete community that could be built in Halifax,” Cleary said in an interview Thursday.

“From a climate point of view and a transportation point of view, there isn’t a better place to add people. If you were to add the same number of people out in Tantallon or Hammonds Plains or Fall River, all those people are going to drive into work. And we already know from Stats Can over half of the population of the peninsula walk, cycles, or take transit to work, from census data.”

Cleary noted there’s a transit terminal, employment, day care, and obviously shopping nearby.

“It’s like a little mini city,” Cleary said.

“This is a really fantastic place to add density and a really fantastic opportunity for us to grow the city in probably one of the more sustainable developments that we’ve ever seen.”

But many of the people who came to the meeting Wednesday night didn’t see it that way.

NIMBYs not having it

“Literally a NIMBY with a megaphone, an actual megaphone, got up on the stage and started jacking people up and saying, ‘Who here opposes this?'” Cleary said.

“A couple of our planners came over and said, ‘We just can’t, we can’t continue.’ I asked her if I could borrow her megaphone. She kindly agreed. And I told people how disappointed I was in them and that we had to shut it down, unfortunately. We’ll reschedule a new one, probably with a modified format.”

In the meantime, there’s a survey online. Cleary said the shutdown was a first for him, and for HRM’s planning staff. He estimated there were about 80 people there.

“There was clearly some misunderstanding about where we are in the process and what we’re expecting people to give input on,” he said. “As I tried to explain to people last night, if you’re simply here to oppose, that’s great, we recognize you, but that’s not going to happen. We’re going ahead with the growth node. It’s just a matter of what’s in it, and that’s the input we’re looking for.”

Kevin Wilson lives nearby and went to the meeting.

“We’re in the middle of a pretty acute housing crisis, so I think redeveloping what is essentially a mostly empty parking lot into a pretty large amount of housing, depending on how the final design shakes out, is really important,” Wilson said.

Long timelines on development

Wilson went to the meeting to learn more about the project, particularly around active transportation, and to try “to steer it in a good direction.” He learned the timelines see Phase 1 happening in 10 to 20 years, and Phase 2 happening in 40 to 50 years.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, but I had the expectation that I would live to see the actual development,” Wilson said.

Most people at the meeting won’t live to see the full development, Wilson said. In his mid-30s, Wilson, said he was the youngest person there. He said people were skeptical, to say the least.

“It just seemed like there was an undercurrent of, ‘Don’t do anything,'” Wilson said.

“I went into it hoping it would be a conversation about how to make it better, or what would the best version of developing this empty parking lot look like, and instead it was just like, ‘Don’t touch my parking lot.'”

Wilson said the person with the megaphone asked people in the room to raise their hands if they were opposed. He estimated about 60% of the crowd did so. It was “kind of a clown show,” Wilson said, and he left early.

The meeting raises questions for Wilson about the value of this sort of public consultation.

“You do ostensibly want to give the community, especially the people living immediately adjacent to these kinds of projects, a say,” Wilson said.

“But it inevitably just devolves into the people who have the most time on their hands showing up.”

Wilson said the people who will live in these buildings probably aren’t born yet.

“You have this weird information session for people who don’t want you to do anything, but they won’t be there anyway, and the people who are going to benefit from it, aren’t born and can’t attend or are born and are like, four,” Wilson said.

“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis and we’re doing this kind of information session for the people who won’t be alive to live in or around it. It’s kind of like, what are we doing?”

Cleary said the master planning process will probably take another year or year and a half before it’s up for council approval, and then the application process could be up to a year.

“I expect we’re still two or three years before anyone’s got a permit in hand to start demolishing and building something new,” Cleary said.

Councillor hates idea of underground transit terminal

Cleary has his own concerns with part of the plan: an underground bus terminal.

The Mumford Terminal has been over capacity since at least 2016. The municipality wanted to replace it with a new terminal, estimated at $15 million, by 2021. The development plans have put that on hold because HRM rents the property from OPB Realty.

Cushman and Wakefield’s proposal would put the terminal underneath its new residential towers. Its drawings show a terminal similar to the preferred design chosen by HRM in 2018, but with a ramp underground.

A rendering shows a cross section of a road and a park over top a bus terminal. There are vehicles driving around and people walking.
A preliminary rendering showing the plan for a bus terminal underneath the redeveloped West End Mall property. Credit: HRM/Cushman & Wakefield/architectsAlliance

“I personally hate the idea of an underground bus terminal, just from a lighting perspective, a safety perspective, a ventilation perspective, a circulation perspective, and cost,” Cleary said.

Cleary suggested a different concept. The towers themselves, with stores and amenities in the ground floor, would serve as the terminal and buses circle the block.

“The more people you have around, the safer people feel. Imagine an underground bus terminal at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. The number of passengers is low, it’s underground so the lighting is not going to be very great. You might not feel, especially if you’re a woman, like you have an escape route to get out if there’s something happening,” Cleary said. “And so I think both the actual safety and the perception of safety would be a lot diminished in an underground bus terminal. So for my money, having a lot of people around going in and out of stores, going in and out of buildings would be a way better place to have the new bus terminal.”

Cleary said Halifax Transit may modify the bus terminal in the coming years as an interim step, but the new permanent terminal will likely have to wait for Phase 1 of the redevelopment.

“It unfortunately means we’re still a few years out from a new Mumford Terminal,” Cleary said.

HRM declines interview request

The Examiner requested an interview with Ross Grant, the municipal planner on the file, to talk about the meeting, the project, and the bus terminal. Spokesperson Klara Needler said he wasn’t available, and sent this statement instead:

Phase 1 of Public engagement is currently underway, with Phase 2 of public engagement expected to take place at a later point in the planning process. The overall project timeline is dependent on the completion of needed background studies and technical reviews. Given the size of the site, and the number of buildings that could be built, redevelopment is expected to take many years.   

The developer has proposed an underground bus terminal in proximity to the existing terminal within the first phase of the development. Plans shown are preliminary as the proposal has not yet been reviewed by municipal staff. A comprehensive transportation study is required as part of the Future Growth Node Planning Process, which includes assessing transit needs, and will be reviewed by staff.

According to the information received from the developer, Phase 1 is expected to develop over 20 years, while Phase 2 is expected to take 20 to 30 additional years (40 to 50 years in total for the entire project). The municipality has requested a more detailed timeline be provided as part of the review process. This timeline could evolve as the project progresses.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. There is an old Greek proverb that goes something like… “A society grows great when people plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit”. Despite the characterization that only old folks and NIMBy’s were in attendance on April 12, my impression was that most people arrived curious to see what was being proposed and understandably concerned with some aspects of the Ontario Pension Plan Boards (aka Cushman Wakefield) proposal. In response to this proposal, we have formed Shape Mumford Growth, a community group of residents who want to provide meaningful input to HRM on their plans. We advocate for the design and development of a livable community in the West End Mall Future Growth Node taking into consideration reasonable density levels that meet community expectations and HRM standards for green space, shade/light (and other standards). We want to see a reasonably dense, well-serviced community design and development that is a model for creating livable spaces within existing cityscapes that meet modern community, environmental and urban design standards and principles. Far from being anti-development, we see this as a once in a generation opportunity to create something remarkable that will benefit Halifax for a very long time. If your readers are interested they can contact us at: shapemumfordgrowth@gmail.com.

  2. I live in the area and a boomer(as IG haters would have it). I’m not a NIMBY and went to the meeting to hear more about the plans. City staff was obviously not expecting such a large crowd. But to have Cleary shut it down because one person had a bigger bullhorn than him exhibited his bullying tactics and disregard for his constituents. People there got even more riled up because of him.
    I look forward to another properly organized event when Cleary lets staff do its work in presenting the plans and then calmly gather input from all stakeholders of all ages.

  3. It’s unfortunate but not surprising that the area Councilor took opportunity to shame the local residents. A better strategy would be to listen to what they have to say and have a conversation about their concerns and the proposed project. Overall, the idea of a growth node in the area is good, but must come with consideration that the existing infrastructure including roads, water, sewer, green spaces, and parking is likely not adequate for this level of density. Taking a condescending approach to residents will never help.

    1. When someone shows up at a public meeting with a megaphone, their intent is not to listen or express constructive criticism. Their intent is to disrupt and intimidate.

  4. “the timelines see Phase 1 happening in 10 to 20 years, and Phase 2 happening in 40 to 50 years”. A lot of people would question why an application is being made now. My speculation would be that this is a negotiation ploy regarding the location and design of a new transit terminal. They know that HRM wants to replace the existing over capacity terminal asap.

  5. I am a little curious as to why the Province didn’t designate this site as a “special planning area”. The West End Mall site is one of a number of sites designated by municipal planning documents as a “future growth node” where more intensive development (mostly redevelopment) is supported due to the existing availability of public transit and services needed by residents. There was considerable public input and design guidelines were included in the planning documents.

    If the Province wanted to expedite housing approvals, I would have thought that the future growth nodes would have been top priority for a special planning area designation. However, so far, it seems that the Province’s objective is to expedite development of large greenfield sites without the bother of public input or municipal approvals. I wonder when the public will have the opportunity to see the approved plans for the Birch Cove Lake lands?

    1. Two of the special planning areas (Penhorn and Southdale) were future growth nodes. As for why this one hasn’t been declared a special planning area, I would speculate it’s because the developer hasn’t asked the minister.

      1. I would concur with your “speculation” that the main criterion for special planning area designation is who can get behind closed doors with the Minister. We know that Annapolis has been there.

        1. The West End Mall site was one of the 23 options initially proposed by HRM to the Task Force on Housing in January 2022. See this FOIPOP for the list of options: https://openinformation.novascotia.ca/FOI-Requests/2022-00041-MAH/ttir-ygk2 and see this map for all the locations (under the Development Pressures tab):

          The criteria for which sites were selected is unclear. The 9 initially selected sites did not include all of the largest (most housing units) sites, nor all the ones that could be built out the quickest. It did include all sites owned by Clayton Developments.

          1. What I gather from this is that it takes a FOIPOP application to get any level of detailed info. on the various “special planning” projects. I don’t know why the task force minutes were included. They tell you virtually nothing.
            And as for the alternative proposals, it looks like this was something prepared by HRM staff to the steering committee in their behind closed doors meeting. I don’t think that this was ever presented publicly at a Regional Council session.
            I was initially surprised that Regional Council did not object to loosing it’s authority over so much future development. On reflection though, I realized that I shouldn’t be surprised as Regional Council had to have been involved with this special planning legislation. Consider that the Mayor attended the press conference where the Minister announced this legislation. He did not express any objections and he would not have been there had he not first consulted with Council.
            Democracy dies in darkness.

        2. I can’t see the reply button for your comment below, but the Mayor and Council have at every opportunity both officially by motion and in interviews, correspondence and newsletters condemned the undemocratic special planning area process. When adopted by the province I wrote this:

          In other news, you may have seen the recent announcement by the Province of Nova Scotia to create nine special planning areas in HRM. I do not support these measures. There are better ways for the Province to instruct HRM to meet timelines that protect the democratic process and ensure public engagement. Most of these special areas are already scheduled to land at Council for public hearings on the schedule the Province “announced”. The nine special planning areas they announced are within communities the municipality has already designated for growth through the regional planning process.

          We all want to increase the supply of market, attainable, affordable and crisis housing options for residents. I don’t think any of these actions are needed, or the best way to achieve that goal. I could go on and on but Councillor Sam Austin did an excellent job of summing up the problems with this approach, so I’ll just say Sam nailed it, read his take here: https://samaustin.ca/e-news-march-2022/

          1. Maybe I missed it or there may be a problem with the search engine on the HRM website but I can’t find any link to motions on council when I type in “special planning areas”.  There are a lot of news releases with maps illustrating the various sites with very rudimentary information regarding the future development and notices of approvals recommended by the Executive Panel on Housing and approved by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing
            Regardless, whether HRM should agree to participate in this provincial initiative  should have been brought to Regional Council for deliberation and a motion.  This matter has significant ramifications to the future growth of the Municipality and the issues are complicated but at least the public would have had an opportunity to understand and see where their councillors stood.
            What I find most puzzling is why this didn’t happen.  I have watched the debates regarding  controversial issues such as the Municipality’s response to the homelessness crisis and the budget and have been incredibly impressed by  both the deliberations and how Council conducts itself.  So why didn’t this happen here?