A depiction of the Barrington Street historic buildings, form Heritage Trust's website.
A depiction of the Barrington Street historic buildings, form Heritage Trust’s website.
A depiction of the Barrington Street historic buildings, form Heritage Trust’s website.

It’s Beat Up on Heritage Trust time. Again.

This time it’s a full page ad in the Chronicle Herald signed by seemingly everyone in town connected in some way to the development industry, including Sarah Dennis, the Herald’s owner and publisher, and her husband Mark Lever, the company’s president. The ad attacks Heritage Trust for asking for a judicial review of municipal decisions related to the Nova Centre.

Besides the ad itself, the Herald assigned Clare Mellor to report on…the ad. Mellor is usually a capable reporter, but there’s so much wrong with her article that it appears that either Herald management intervened in the reporting, or Mellor self-censored to please her bosses. Either way, it’s a regrettable piece.

First of all, consider this sentence from the ad, which was quoted in Mellor’s article:

Groups like Heritage Trust must focus on their own mandate and leave the business of economic development to those who step up to advance our city.

Wait, haven’t we seen someone complaining about Heritage Trust allegedly not focusing on its mandate somewhere before? Why, yes we have: in Joe Ramia’s suit against Heritage Trust, filed on June 25, which reads:

Heritage Trust has consistently acted contrary to its mandate and opposed various development projects within HRM not in line with their objectives.

Mellor’s article is a puff piece for convention centre supporters, essentially calling out Heritage for being overly litigious. But both Heritage Trust and Joe Ramia are using the courts to achieve their aims, and Mellor fails to mention Ramia’s suit at all. It’s arguable whether either side should be using the courts, but Heritage Trust’s suit is about policy issues, not damages, where Ramia’s suit is seeking  punitive damages from the directors of Heritage Trust. This should have been mentioned in the article. Because it wasn’t, it looks like a Herald-sponsored piling on of Heritage Trust as part of a PR battle to sway the public and the court’s opinion against Heritage Trust.

Beyond the very problematic Herald article, is the charge—that Heritage Trust impedes development—true?

It would be one thing if Heritage Trust actually held such sway, but the reality is something different entirely. Fact is, while Heritage Trust weighs in on lots of development proposals, the group has only appealed council’s approval of a development proposal a handful of times, with not much success. Last week’s demolition of the Infants Home is fairly typical: historic buildings get demolished in Halifax on a regular basis, despite Heritage Trust’s objections.

Going through news archives and court cases, I can find only four times before the year 2000 that Heritage Trust took court action.

The first such time was  over the proposed Market Place Plaza on Brunswick Street. As early as 1979 the Ecology Action Centre was opposed to the building, and Heritage Trusts’s case went before the courts in 1981. It lost, and the building was constructed (it’s now the Homburg Building).

In 1984 Heritage Trust intervened on the city’s side on an appeal of council’s non-approval of two towers at the ATV site at Brunswick and Sackville Streets. The city prevailed in that case.

In 1986 Heritage Trust appealed council’s approval for the demolition of the Green Latern building on Barrington Street, but the group withdrew that appeal when it became clear the developer couldn’t finance the project.

In 1991 the trust appealed the city’s approval of the Brenhold development at Spring Garden Road and Summer Street, first to the UARB, which ruled against the Trust, and then to the provincial Supreme Court, which in a 2-1 split decision also ruled against the Trust. 

It would be another 14 years before Heritage Trust would again take legal action over a Halifax development proposal. That was in 2005, when the Trust appealed council’s approval of the Midtown Tavern tower. The UARB overturned council’s approval, so that was a clear victory for Heritage Trust. But, it’s worth noting, had the tower been built, the Nova Centre would not now be under construction.

In 2007, Heritage Trust appealed council’s approval of the Twisted Sisters development, and lost. But the developer never built the buildings.

In 2009, Heritage Trust intervened on the city’s side in an anticipated appeal by the Armour Group over council’s rejection of the Waterside project. But before the matter got to the UARB, then-premier Rodney MacDonald took matters into his own hands and overturned council’s decision.

Now, the group has two actions in play, appealing council’s approval of the Nova Centre and the Thiels’ 22nd Commerce Square project. Interestingly, the Thiel family has also asked the courts to intervene in the Nova Centre approval.

That makes a grand total of nine times that Heritage Trust has intervened in development issues beyond the public hearing and comment stage. It flat-out lost in four of those cases. Two more are unresolved. One, the Green Lantern development, was made irrelevant. That leaves just two times over 23 years that Heritage Trust has actually prevailed in legal action over development.

If, as its critics claim, Heritage Trust is trying to stop all development, they’re doing a terrible job at it.

Additionally, Heritage Trust has compiled a list of 74 developments that complied with the Citadel Hill view planes (the Trust’s main objection in its appeals) and have been constructed. Additionally, there have been 52 renovations and expansions that went ahead with no problem. Lastly, there have been 10 development projects approved, but never built.

Read Heritage Trust’s list here

We’ve had something like 170 development proposals on the peninsula over the past few decades. Heritage Trust intervened after the approval process just nine times, and actually stopped just two of the projects. So why the over-the-top hatred of the group?

I can already hear the objection that even if Heritage Trust doesn’t win their appeals, the delay caused by legal action makes the projects non-viable financially. Well, maybe. But even if true, it’s happened nine times, and didn’t happen 161 times.

It’s a cheap shot, however. The vitriol directed at the group is all very odd. Every city has some equivalent of the Heritage Trust, a group of people dedicated to preserving the historic buildings of the town, educating people about local history, and so forth. Most places, these people are a valued part of the social landscape, and are seen as just another interest group vying in the realm of public opinion and government decision-making. In Halifax, however, the preservation group is detested.

I think this says more about the city generally than it does about Heritage Trust. As I’ve pointed out before, this place has a weird need to over-compensate for its poor self-image, to get approval from others. Or, as the ad in the Herald put it:

Finding people to invest in our region is challenging and we cannot afford to discourage attempts to make this city great.

Money From Away will save us, and we can’t be “great” without outsiders noticing us. It’d be funny, were it not so sad.

I argue that in addition to the need for outside approval, Halifax also needs a scapegoat for its self-perceived short-comings.

In the Middle Ages, royals were considered god’s representatives on Earth, which presented certain problems when the crown prince would act up: how do you punish god’s representative? The solution was to find a whipping boy; when the prince misbehaved, some innocent commoner was pulled from the crowd and beaten in the prince’s stead.

Similarly, here in Halifax we give developers a god-like status as our civic saviours. They alone will lead us out of wilderness into the paradise of big cityhood and shower us with manna if only we allow them. They are worshipped, and beyond reproach. So what do we do when our urban fantasies fail to materialize? We find a whipping boy. We beat up on Heritage Trust.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. Nice piece Tim. People do love to scapegoat the Trust for all of Halifax’s development ills. For about 20 years starting in 1989 there was almost nothing built Downtown and the Trust is frequently blamed for that, which has little basis in reality. The lack of development Downtown has way more to do with economics and planning than the Trust. The bottom fell out of the commercial real estate market in 1989 and it took 20 years for commercial rents to recover to the point that new construction was attractive. We’re somewhat back to square one again as the 2008 recession has pushed vacancy rates back up again and everyone is scrambling for tenants. The Heritage Trust has had nothing to do with the 89 and 08 recessions. Needless to say, they don’t control vacancy rates, construction costs or bank financing.

    On the other side, we’ve had crappy planning rules that have made it tough to build Downtown while allowing sprawl to spread ever outward. Since 89, there has actually been a number of office development in HRM, they just haven’t been Downtown. They’ve been in the suburban market which in that period grew to have more than 50% of the total space available in Halifax. This makes us fairly unique in Canada as one of the only cities that doesn’t have most of its office space Downtown. We recover some of the cost of new development, but a lot of it ends up paid for by the taxpayer (see Washmill Lake Underpass, Timberlea sewage diversion, etc), which means that Downtown is subsidizing its competition. Until recently, HRM has shown no interest in tackling any of the bigger picture planning problems that has made the suburbs a more appealing place to build. Again, the Trust has not controlled this.

    Telling people that economics and planning are the problem is tough and complicated. Telling them its the Trusts fault is easy, especially when the Trust is so vocal in the media. It’s no wonder they’ve become a favourite target.

  2. The suit and advertorial seems to put Heritage Trust in a more sympathetic light and makes the convention centre backers look more like rich bastards than they already did.

  3. I just returned from a month in the UK. As a tourist I marveled at their National Trust, which I believe is a private/public partnership that has ownership of most if not all historic sites and property. Being independent of political control they raise funds, partner with private managers (St.Micheal’s Mount) ensuring these national treasures are secured and accessible.It looks to be a fine example of what a heritage organization should function like.