Despite the CAO’s previous statement that such a move would be “unwise,” staff are recommending council sell off a portion of the Halifax Forum property to pay for an expensive redevelopment plan.
Built in 1926 and registered as a heritage property in 2003, the historic Halifax Forum has fallen into disrepair in recent years, with cracking bricks, a leaky roof, and ice surfaces too small to serve the municipality’s modern needs.
Halifax regional council voted in November 2019 to move ahead with a plan from consultants Ventin Group (+VG) to redevelop the building, keeping and restoring its brick facade while updating the rest of the building to the tune of up to $85.9 million.
When council approved that plan, it directed staff to explore some sort of public-private partnership development, likely mixed-use commercial and residential, to recoup some of the cost. As I reported for StarMetro Halifax back then:
Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said that would likely mean a long-term land lease with a developer for between 65 and 99 years.
“We wouldn’t sell the land. It’s probably unwise to sell that kind of strategic property,” he said.
In a report to council on Tuesday, recreation planning specialist Gareth Evans and policy and planning manager Richard Harvey are recommending the city sell the land outright.
“Following the commissioning of a study to understand the private development interests in the Halifax Forum complex, it has been found that the best approach would be dispose of the north portion of the site (corner of Young and Windsor Streets) to off-set project costs,” Evans and Harvey wrote.
Commercial real estate firm Colliers conducted that study, a market sounding, and spoke to developers locally and across Canada.
“The market sounding found that there is moderate private development interest in the Halifax Forum complex site. While various operating partnership possibilities were probed, there was little interest in actual partnership models and greater support for more straight-forward land sale options,” Evans and Harvey wrote.
“As a result, the best approach for HRM to be able to benefit from potential partnerships for the Halifax Forum project would be through a sale of part of the lands, without complex partnership arrangements.”
Staff identified the land at the north of the site as the most attractive for developers, given it’s zoned for taller buildings. It’s also easier to cut off from the rest of the site, Evans and Harvey wrote.
There’s no mention of placing any requirements on the sale of land for affordable housing or community space.
Cutting off the land for development changes the plan for the Forum redevelopment, most notably around parking and parkland.
With the two lots on the site now, one to the north and one to the south, there are 500 parking spaces.
The original proposal for redevelopment included a two-storey parking structure on the north side, and a total of 350 parking spaces. The new proposal cuts the amount of parking spaces to 150.
“While there would be increased challenges to parking, they are not to such an extent that parking would be unavailable, as is the case with many facilities within urban settings,” Evans and Harvey wrote. “The remaining on-site parking would need to be managed to ensure ample accessible parking spaces and off-street loading for equipment are accommodated.”
It would also mean less park space.
“Throughout the conceptual design phase of this project, it was recognized that areas adjacent to the Halifax Forum are underserved from a parkland perspective. The surrounding area is currently experiencing further densification, creating additional demands for local parkland,” Evans and Harvey wrote.
Planned parkland to the south of the Forum is now proposed to be redesigned to include a basketball court and playground, and parkland to the east, shown in the original site plan as green space, would be lost altogether.
“Completely eliminating the parkland could increase the total number of on-site spaces to approximately 280,” Evans and Harvey wrote, but that’s not recommended.
The Halifax Forum Community Association (HFCA) estimated a requirement for 270 parking spaces, and proposed a two-level parking structure to the south of the building that would also retain park space. The municipality rejected the idea due to cost and a continued “emphasis on car dependency.”
The cost estimate from the municipality is also rising, with the “best estimate” climbing from $74.7 million to $81 million. That includes an increase of $2.5 million to make the multi-purpose space bigger, along with general construction inflation.
The report comes to council’s Tuesday meeting on the consent agenda, meaning Mayor Mike Savage, along with Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit and CAO Dubé, thought it wouldn’t require council debate during their agenda-setting meeting. Any councillor can ask that the motion be pulled from the consent agenda for full debate.