1. Downtown vacancies, The Carleton, and the crisis of capitalism
The Turner Drake appraisal firm has conducted its annual survey of office rents in Halifax, and discovered downtown is emptying out fast:
Office vacancy in Halifax’s Central Business District now rivals Calgary… that is the stunning conclusion reached by Turner Drake & Partners Ltd. as part of their Atlantic Canada December 2015 surveys. Overall office vacancy now hovers at around 16%, while Class A is a staggering 26%… and a third of Class C is now vacant!
Halifax’s woes are self-inflicted; a municipal policy favouring its city-owned industrial parks encourages tenants to abandon the downtown in favour of cheaper space in more accessible locations. Canada Revenue Agency are the latest large space users to abandon the downtown: they are heading to the Bayer’s Lake Industrial Park. Declining demand for office space in the CBD is now writ large in the vacancy rates: 26.29% of Class A space is now vacant, a jump from 18.85% in 2014…and that situation will worsen as new space such as the Nova Centre comes on stream next year. Class C space vacancy is an eye watering 32.66%, nearly double the 2014 rate of 18.30%. The outlier is Class B space, which saw a much lower rate of 9.71%, but likewise increased from 6.58% the previous year.
What will happen next? CBD Class A buildings will capture Class B occupants to repair their high vacancy rate. Class B buildings will then syphon demand from Class C buildings. Some buildings will be repurposed for residential use, be abandoned or demolished. Halifax CBD will continue to decline as the Atlantic Region’s centre of commerce. None of this should come as any great surprise. In 2009, Turner Drake conducted a study for HRM and concluded that “if present trends persist Downtown Halifax will continue to decline as a business centre…hotel and residential development will increasingly dominate activity in the area.”
This would be the perfect time to open a gigantic 16-storey office building downtown, eh?
I’ve been biased against the thing from the start, but as the Nova Centre begins to take final form, it’s worse than even I thought it would be. It’s a huge hulking presence over downtown, dominating the skyline, the streetscape, the energy of downtown. It’s weird watching the concrete structure, reminiscent of Soviet brutalism, get its glass cladding — we’re getting the very best of 1980s’ architecture. Bold.
It was odd, watching the forces come together to get Nova Centre approved and built. The economic arguments for the convention centre were bullshit, but I think there was more to it than that. There was an attitude among a broad swath of the public that “we’re not a real city if we don’t have lots of glass skyscrapers,” and it held the day. And now we’ve got a 26 per cent vacancy rate for Class A office space downtown and a couple of hundred thousand more feet of Class A office space is about to open up.
There’s nothing wrong with big glass skyscrapers per se, but that’s not what a city is about. As Jen Zoratti put it in the Winnipeg Free Press, “a city’s identity is found in its dive bars, not its shiny new hotels“:
A city’s DNA is in its dive bars and flea-bag hotels and holes-in-the-wall. When people talk about the cities they’ve visited, their impressions aren’t shaped by surface lots or shiny new hotels. No, they breathlessly describe the “great little spot” they “found.” Everyone wants to feel like they’ve stumbled upon something great. Places like the Times Change(d) [a Winnipeg bar] give you that feeling.
And overwhelmingly, it seems as though the “great little spots” that get lost to gentrification and “progress” are small and mid-level music venues.
Which brings us to The Carleton.
Mike Campbell has done a remarkable thing with the Carleton. As popular tastes have moved on to DJs and dance music, Campbell has doubled down on the live music and the Carleton has become the very best venue around. But, he says, the construction of the Nova Centre is “kicking the snot out of our business,” and so he has started a crowd-funding campaign to help the business survive through the construction. Campbell thinks that if he can survive this year, the completed Nova Centre will bring renewed success to his business.
I wish Campbell the very best, but I fear he’s too optimistic. Already Night Magic and Strange Adventures had to move out of their old building as the owner embarked on a renovation in expectation of higher rents, and the Seahorse had to move when its rent was increased. I think landlords in the area are drooling at the prospect of increasing rents. I doubt much of the Argyle Street bar district will survive.
None of this makes much sense. It didn’t make sense to build a million square feet of new office, hotel, and commercial space in struggling market. It doesn’t make sense to build thousands of new condos and apartments when the population growth is flat and residential vacancy rates are soaring. It doesn’t make sense to increase rents so much that your tenants can’t survive. But here we are.
We’re seeing the last gasp of a broken global financial system. Besides the finance system itself, there’s nothing much really left to invest in, except for urban real estate. This is a global phenomena, especially in China — Geographer David Harvey tells us that from 2011 to 2014 China consumed more concrete than the United States did through the entire 20th century, and almost all of that concrete went to build cities. There are now scores of “ghost cities” across China, metropolises built to hold tens of millions of people, but which are nearly vacant.
This urbanization boom has had very little to do with meeting the needs of people. It has been all about absorbing surplus capital, sustaining profit levels, and maximizing the return on exchange values no matter what the use value demands might be. The consequences have often been irrational in the extreme. While there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing in almost every major city, their skylines are littered with empty condominiums for the ultra-rich whose main interest is in speculating in property values rather than constructing a settled life. In New York City, where half of the population has to live on less than $30,000 per year (as contrasted with the top 1 percent, who had an average annual income of $3.57 million per year according to tax records for 2012), there is an affordable housing crisis because nowhere is it possible to find a two-bedroom apartment for the $1,500 per month that a family of four should be spending on housing given an income of $30,000. In almost all the major cities in the U.S. the average expenditure on housing is way over the thirty percent of disposable income that is considered reasonable. The same applies to London, where there are whole streets of unoccupied mansions being held for purely speculative purposes. Meanwhile, the British government attempts to increase the supply of affordable housing by putting a bedroom tax on social housing for the most vulnerable sector of the population, resulting in, for example, the eviction of a widow living alone in a two bedroom council house. The empty bedroom tax has plainly been put on the wrong class, but governments these days appear to be singularly dedicated to feathering the nests of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the disadvantaged. The same irrationality of empty dwellings in the midst of shortages of affordable housing can be found in Brazil, Turkey, Dubai, and Chile as well all the global cities of high finance such as London and New York. Meanwhile, budget austerities and reluctance to tax the wealthy given the overwhelming power of a now triumphant oligarchy means declining public services for the masses and further astonishing accumulation of wealth for the few.
Halifax is just a bit player in this game, but the same factors with some local twists — I think one interesting but unacknowledged driver of Halifax construction is the need to invest capital accumulated in the Middle East — are at play.
2. Examineradio, episode #44
This week we speak with Dartmouth business owner and amateur historian Joel Plaskett about the fire service debate, the New Scotland Yard Emporium, the future of the Khyber building and his undying love of Billy Joel. Plaskett also dabbles in music, we understand.
Don’t worry about your fire service, Dartmouthians. Everything will work out fine.
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3. Climate change
“A new American study suggests that by the end of the century waters off Nova Scotia may be much warmer than predicted,” reports the Chronicle Herald:
“We do think that this is going to be a hot spot for climate change,” said Vincent Saba, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries scientist and lead author of the study.
“We looked at the entire northwest Atlantic shelf. Most of the enhanced warming was right off the eastern Scotian Shelf and right off the Gulf of Maine,” Saba said Friday in an interview.
The study projects warming of about three or four degrees Celsius in the northwest Atlantic Ocean 60 to 100 years from now.
1. Halifax Twitter Outrage Bingo
2. Chronicle Herald
“Downhill fast.” The caption over Wednesday’s Chronicle Herald front-page photo — of skateboarders zipping down Citadel Hill — said it all,” writes Stephen Kimber. “The Herald, which bills itself as Canada’s largest independent newspaper, is hurtling downhill, ever faster toward its own oblivion.”:
My fear is that Herald management — by cutting back on the quality journalism that is its only significant “value proposition” while transforming those who create that value into undervalued enemies — will only make the situation worse.
Meanwhile, on Saturday the Halifax Typographical Union, which represents newsroom staff at the Chronicle Herald, tweeted that “in [a] letter to readers today, CH maintains it will lay off staff photographers. Our quick 21,000-word response.” The tweet contained 21 outstanding photos from staff photographers. A sampling;
It’s just the fact that if you expect reporters to take photos with iPhones, you’re going to end up with worse reporting and worse photography. Photography is a skilled profession; it takes training, a particular kind of artistic sense, experience, the right equipment, and the time and work to get it right.
3. Cranky letter of the day
I am 86. I did 50 years of service in the military (navy), 30 years full time then another 20 years part time. Age, not my physical condition, put an end to that. I now live by myself; my wife of 62 years has moved on.
My mail was always delivered at my mailbox at the end of the driveway. Now it’s in a community box seven kilometres away — it’s close to 15 kilometres there and back for me. My mailbox situation was classified as being unsafe. The ladies who deliver the mail on these country roads — 90 per cent of them are at risk. I offered to change my mailbox, etc. No way.
As a parting shot, the man who delivers your paper to my mailbox for the last three years has only missed one day. He usually puts it in my mailbox between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. The day he missed, the truck that brings the papers from Halifax to the Windsor area had broken down.
Anyway, it’s time I moved on, too.
Fred Eggleton, Burlington
Executive Standing Committee (10am, City Hall) — you’d think the committee would be getting around to hiring a new CAO, but you’d be wrong.
District 7 & 8 Planning Advisory Committee ( 7pm, Halifax Forum) — the committee will be looking at a proposed seven-storey apartment building at 6389 and 6395 North Street.
No public meetings.
Racism is Killing Us Softly (6pm, Room 307 Dalhousie Student Union Building) — the event listing:
In Commemoration of the Dr. Martin Luther King’s Day event, the Black Student Advising Centre in collaboration with the School of Social Work, the James Robinson Johnston chair (JRJ) of the Black Canadian Studies and the Association of Black Social Workers present the 3rd lecture series on “Racism is Killing Us Softly”.This topic will aim to engage not only the Dalhousie community but the broader Nova Scotian and Canadian community to explore the concepts of justice in relation to the African Canadian racial identity. The event will not only expose injustices but highlight progressive organizations and ideas within the local justice system. Inclusion is a major goal of this event.
Wrinkles (8pm, QEII Royal Bank Theatre, Halifax Infirmary) — a screening of Ignacio Ferreras’s 2011 Spanish animated film about Alzheimer’s disease. Afterwards, a panel discussion includes:
Melissa Andrew (Geriatrician),
Keri-Leigh Cassidy (Psychiatrist)
Darce Fardy (Journalist & Patient advocate)
Susan Kirkland (Epidemiologist)
This date in history
On January 18, 1994, the Dartmouth City Council passed the following resolution:
WHEREAS the Halifax-Dartmouth municipal structure was the subject of a substantial portion of the recent Metropolitan Economic Summit (Nov. 26-27);
AND WHEREAS the business conununities recognize the existing structure as inefficient and in need of change;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that Dartmouth City Council demonstrate leadership by asking the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (MAPC) to reconvene, to deal with Municipal Restructuring;
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Dartmouth offer its Water, Fire and Police as initial services for regionalization.