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.
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.
“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.