The notorious Cogswell interchange, via Google satellite view, 2017.

There were a few golden moments at the Art of City Building conference held yesterday at the Central Library, one in particular when architectural historian and critic Hans Ibelings shared a favourite cartoon: One planner says to another, “Let’s replace the mistakes of the past… with new ones.”

The joke is relevant in Halifax these days as we continue to move towards replacing one of the heftier planning mistakes of our past: the Cogswell interchange. The question looms: what mistakes will we put in its place?

Of course, it’s hard to beat Cogswell in the mistake department. The interchange was opened in 1970 and rendered pointless by 1971, when the plans for its accompanying waterfront expressway were officially scrapped. The damage, of course, had been done: a neighbourhood and street grid eradicated, and a downtown street (Barrington) turned into the city’s shortest expressway.

Right now, city staff and contractors at WSP Canada are creating the detailed plans for Cogswell, with a goal of 60 per cent complete design sometime in early 2018 so that council will be able to approve it by the end of March 2018, in what is being described as a “go/no-go” decision point. (They either say yes, or effectively waste all the money they’ve spent on detailed design, and delay the project by who knows how long.)

When I first saw this new timeline I thought, whoa, what happened to the 30 per cent design review? In its (very detailed) Cogswell Transformed final report from 2014 (huge pdf here), Ekistics Planning and Design put forward a timeline that included a “30% design review” and “council approval of planning and real estate.” These were to happen before the 60 per cent detailed planning work and the eventual go/no-go decision. The timeline graphic was even used in staff’s presentation to council in May 2014, right before council approved a motion moving forward with various aspects of the project.

But it turns out that sometime between 2014 and 2017, the timeline and review points have changed. The idea of council approving planning at the 30 per cent design stage was abandoned for a 30 per cent approval by the Cogswell Steering Committee. The Cogswell Steering Committee is not a committee of council, but rather a senior staff group, and so its meeting agendas and minutes are not published on the city website.

Both Cogswell redevelopment director Donna Davis and councillor Waye Mason have told me that this new timeline, featuring the go/no-go decision sometime in early 2018, was approved by council at some point. Unfortunately, I just can’t find the paper trail. It could be due to the astoundingly poor functionality of the new HRM website, or it could be because this didn’t happen in a public meeting. (Update: it turns out this is because the update was submitted to council in the form of a memorandum from senior staff.  So no approval, but rather an update.)

And regardless of whether or not council has approved this new timeline, I’m shocked that anyone would think it was a good idea to move through a 30 per cent review in private, leaving all the political and public discussions over this design to happen once the majority of the work has been completed.

Since the last detailed information on the Cogswell redevelopment came out in 2014 (docs available here, but not on the Cogswell project page), much has happened in Halifax transportation planning. The city’s upcoming Integrated Mobility Plan promises a major shift in infrastructure resources towards sustainable modes of transport, and away from one-person vehicles. When the IMP finally makes it to council (now scheduled for December), we will likely see a minimum grid of protected bike lanes and the city’s first bus-only lanes included. We may even, if we’re lucky, see the prioritization of pedestrians.

With the tear down and redevelopment of Cogswell, we are quite literally re-drawing a street grid of our choosing. Given the substantial shift in our collective thinking about transportation and development, it’s a missed opportunity not to give our plans for Cogswell further public scrutiny.

Of course, we are not completely in the dark. In addition to the reports published in 2014, we do have some idea of what the 30 per cent design looks like. The city published a one page concept map this month, and there’s also a slightly older 3D video rendering of what the new site will look like from the perspective of a hang-glider moving through the new street grid. But both are thin on details.

One thing you can’t miss on the concept map: two large roundabouts. The first joins Cornwallis, a newly-aligned Barrington, and Valour Way, the road into the naval base. And another where the new Upper Water splits off from the new Barrington.

The plan also features a bi-directional bike path connecting the Barrington Greenway with the bike lanes, such as they are, at Hollis and Lower Water. There’s also a new multi-use pathway connecting Cornwallis to Cogswell, where a new bidirectional on-street bike lane heads up to the Commons.

There will be new green spaces surrounding (but apparently not on top of) the sewage treatment plant, as well as a new public square at the head of the current Granville Mall, between Hollis and Barrington.

In terms of transit, you can’t see it on the concept plan, but previous reports indicate a “transit hub” at Granville Square, adjacent to the  current major downtown transit terminal, and a few blocks from the ferry terminal. There is also a small bit of transit priority inserted into the plan, with the outside lanes of Barrington marked as bus-only from Scotia Square up to the first roundabout. (I would have missed these entirely had not Donna Davis, the director for the project, explained that they were there. If you zoom in real close to the concept map, you can see the diamond markers on the bus only lanes.)

Basically, there’s plenty to be excited about in this 30 per cent concept map, and not just because literally anything would be better than what we have now. There’s plenty to be excited about, if you know what’s there. But without any accompanying explanation, the concept map just doesn’t convey most of the information that Haligonians need to know in order to actually understand this project.

Davis assures me that as the designs progress toward 60 per cent over the coming months, more information will come to light. And that the public will be consulted — not about the entire project, but rather just for the design of the green spaces that have been carved out.

Which means, of course, that HRM is not really interested in further input on the bones of this plan. If it was, there would be a council decision point (and public report and debate) somewhere between 2014’s go-ahead-and-plan motion, and a go/no-go vote on a 60 per cent complete plan in 2018.

Sadly, this plan, which proposes to heal a giant scar on our city, which redraws streets and extends our downtown by several new blocks, seems poised to proceed without further public discussion.

Having spent yesterday at the Art of City Building conference, I can’t help but think of what a missed opportunity it was that the gathered crowd (over 300 local planners, developers, architects, and enthusiasts) and the gathered experts (among others from New York and Scandinavia, former Toronto chief planner Jen Keesmat) didn’t get a chance to hear about the plans for this transformative and historic city building project, and discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities therein.

By not engaging like this, we are missing a chance to get people genuinely excited about rebuilding Cogswell. And we are missing a chance to air out important questions that we should be asking ourselves as we proceed.

Questions like, do we really need two consecutive roundabouts downtown? And, how do those intersection designs affect efficiency of other modes, like pedestrians and transit, which currently make up about 60 per cent of the traffic into the area?

And, how will the transit network change with this new street grid? What is a “transit hub” and are two blocks of bus lanes enough to get buses out of downtown faster than cars?

And, what alternatives have been explored that could get truck traffic off the waterfront to Barrington North corridor?

These are some of the questions I will try to explore in the coming weeks in the Examiner. I’m asking readers to pose their own questions and concerns in the comments, and if I can find answers, I will report back.

We need to step up the critical public examination of this project, if only out of sheer respect for the history at play here. Erecting the Cogswell interchange was a colossal error in urban planning, but it could have been much, much worse if the decisions of the urban planners of the day had held sway. Luckily, the vociferous input of citizens (and a heritage group no less) prevailed.

I’m not saying the current plans for Cogswell represent a colossal error. Far from it. But I do think they merit the scrutiny and consideration of the citizens who will finance their implementation and live with their final product.

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  1. Full disclosure – I was part of the Ekistics team that prepared the original concept. My role was to estimate the land revenue generated from the concept plan, and to assess the market demand for said land.

    1. From day one, the current consultants (WSP) have had a concept to work with that included a fair amount of previous public consultation, including the general public and a dozen or so stakeholders who own land around the property (e.g., Scotia Square, NSCAD, historic properties, hotels, Purdy’s Wharf, etc). So unless they come up with a completely different plan, its not like the community hasn’t had some say to this point. Don’t get me wrong, more input is better, but any new plan will have the benefit of past input.

    2. Given the past Washmill Lake debacle (i.e., major cost overruns), I sense council wants a 60% design so that staff and their consultants can confirm the revenue and cost estimates for the project. Ausca (previous post) should note that this is supposed to be a self financing project and won’t require taxpayer dollars. As the original concept plan was prepared without access to many detailed studies that could alter the concept – think: detailed surveys of municipal infrastructure, soils contamination reports, a survey of easements and other property issues – Council likely wants to check back in once the numbers start to firm up (which is possible at 60%). Given the vast number of constraints on this site, there really aren’t too many design solutions.

    3. I do agree that it would have been a good project to run by the visiting experts. However, they were being bombarded with questions re: the Centre Plan and other things, but a little time could have been warranted to discuss this project. Jennifer Keesmat did reference it in several of her talks.

  2. Notorious? The Cogswell interchange made sense in its original context, connecting to an ugly highway to be built on top of what is now called the Historic Properties. That they canned the principal purpose of the interchange during its construction is just classic local planning and oversight. Think Washmill overpass, Yarmouth Ferry, Bluenose II (and perhaps Convention Centre II). It’s also following long standing tradition that key decisions regarding its design would naturally happen in secret.

    To me the Cogswell interchange is neither especially ugly nor attractive. It’s just an ordinary utilitarian structure that serves its purpose like so many elsewhere in the province. If it ain’t broken we should not risk wasting more public money trying to fix it, even if that does create lots of construction jobs for a year or two (and many legal jobs for the consequent litigation).

    Although no doubt very appealing on paper and in cleverly rendered 3d “artist’s concepts”, I can just see its replacement running over schedule and over budget because of the weather (it snows here?) and as somebody unexpectedly discovers the need to remediate surprisingly vast amounts of contaminated soil from long extinct ancient industries and The City invents a new drainage charge or some other ingenious pretext to force everyone in HRM to pay for it.

    If that happened, I’m willing to bet nobody will be held responsible. Love the way we manage.

  3. A question: how many projects like this get approval at 30%? Just wondering about the context – is it normal for Halifax planning, or would actually getting approval at 30% be unusual and only done in very important projects (which this certainly is)?

  4. It would be advisable to be more open as the project progresses and not build up to an “all or nothing” ultimatum type decision point. The initial plan for a 30% update and public discussion seems to have been a wise recommendation.

    1. We know people will find something to object to (I don’t think the north roundabout is needed, at least at this time – a more tradition traffic light will work and take up much less land.

    2. Public acceptance and input at an early stages means less work redoing things and adding to scope.

    3. Trust is maintained at a slightly higher level.

    4. We know from experience that “star chamber” planning and design does not work in Halifax. We aren’t good at being told what is good for us, even when it is the best thing for us.

  5. 60% of current traffic into the Cogswell Interchange area is transit + pedestrian? Seriously? Into? Mark me down as skeptical.

    I agree. There should have been a 30% presentation, and it’s a shame they missed the opportunity presented by the conference. My hunch is they we’re afraid a vocal and persistent minority of anti-car extremists would talk the project to death, as is their wont.

    1. Depends on how we calculate, I would guess – is the unit of measure vehicles or people? If a single-occupant car and a Halifax Transit bus each count simply as “one vehicle,” then 60% seems off. But if we’re breaking down into percentages the transportation modes of all people entering the interchange, I don’t think the figure would be off – both morning and evening rush hours are a non-stop parade of buses filled to capacity.

  6. I’m excited for the dual roundabouts replacing Cogswell. The concept map looks like they have learned from the mistakes on North Park and will have better designs that slow cars down a bit more at the entry, and have a complete bike path around the outside. What I will be focusing on at any opportunity I have to discuss this at city hall is ensuring that cars are brought to a crawl as they enter the roundabout, to ensure maximum safety and visibility for pedestrians. That’s what the Dutch are doing on their arterial roundabouts now, and they have some of the safest roads in the developed world.

    1. It will be the same person designing these as did the North Common ones. And many of us told him those were going to allow traffic to go through too fast under off peak travel conditions. I wonder if we can expect him to change here, and design for something other than the fastest largest vehicle movement. I know one thing – they should absolutely only allow a large truck to make it through in a crawl, even riding up a middle median. To design for those vehicles, which we hope are soon gone from the downtown (lets get that cargo out via the rail cut!!), would be a waste of space and money for what should be a temporary use. Maybe by doing so, the powers that be with how freight moves to and from the Port might be more interested in using their imaginations and getting those disruptive, unsafe vehicles out of our downtown and away from out tourism generating waterfront.

  7. When you screw over the process, you screw over the people. Not too long ago I got to commiserate with some community planning and environmental activists from “back in the day”. Those were the days when city hall paid attention to “all” citizens who were concerned about their community, neighbourhood, downtown or historic sites. You didn’t have to be a land-owner, live next door, or have a vested interest, including the city planners.
    Now it seems like those who really have the overall best interest of the city at heart are the ones not informed about these important plans and/or are discouraged from participating.

  8. Sorry, but I like the Cogswell interchange as is. It moves traffic efficiently without enriching developers … oh, right. Well, sorry, again.