1. Halifax Transit director rejects council direction to get outside expert help
Halifax Transit is clearly an agency that is hostile to the idea of outside help, and its “baffling” report to city council is a clear red flag for problematic leadership from transit head Dave Reage. By Erica Butler.
Click here to read “Too good for second opinions?”
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2. Voting challenge
“An initiative from two organizations on opposite sides of the country is aiming to get a decisive decision on Canada’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system,” reports Alexander Quon for Global:
Springtide, a charity in Nova Scotia, announced that they will be joining forces with Fair Voting BC, a non-profit in British Columbia, to file a Charter Challenge asserting that Canada’s FPTP system violates section three of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — the right to vote.
“The Supreme Court has said in the past that your right to vote is guaranteed under section three of the charter means more than just marking a ballot and putting it in a box,” said Mark Coffin, executive director of Springtide. “It means effective representation and being meaningfully represented in parliament… it’s a concern that over half of Canadians vote and don’t see the person they voted for in parliament.”
I dunno. I’m no constitutional scholar, but seems like a stretch. Good luck, tho.
3. Matt Whitman says something stupid
Matt Whitman reacts to people reacting to his “Chinese Fire Drill” video, reports Dan Ahlstrand for News 95.7:
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and to think someone is racist for running around a car at a stop sign, that doesn’t make someone racist,” he said.
Whitman says by calling someone racist for doing something that was silly, or foolish gives people who are actually racist a pass, and “that is wrong.”
4. Would you like the flaming pile of poo or the non-flaming pile of poo?
In the best of situations, developers find a piece of property that is “undervalued” (in the market sense) by its current owner, and simply repurpose it for a higher value. So, the widow without the resources or expertise to do anything else with the family home sells it to a developer with the ability to access financing and a slew of connections to get something else built. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing — the widow gets enough money to live out her life in some comfort, and maybe the developer clears out a dilapidated house and constructs housing that jibes with community expectations in an interesting building. Maybe.
But here’s a secret: the really successful developers (in money terms) make their big money by going around the rules. Sometimes this is as simple as bending or breaking zoning rules, and nobody bothers about it, because what are you going to do? More often, though, the developers grease some palms in City Hall, cozy up to some councillors, and lo and behold, zoning and planning rules are changed so the developer can make far more money than someone working within existing rules would have made on the same property.
My favourite example of this is the old Prince’s Lodge Motel on the Bedford Highway, which was owned by the widow Mary Thibeault. You’ll recall that after her death, then-mayor Peter Kelly depleted Thibeault’s personal banking account by the tune of $160,000 or so without bothering to tell the courts or Thibeault’s heirs about it. But that was only one injustice done to Thibeault; another was what happened to her hotel.
As I explained it in 2012, Thibeault was an old woman who was running the hotel single-handedly into her 80s. She wanted to sell the hotel to developers, but the hotel sat on land that had old, complicated zoning restrictions on it — some of the land had a “park and institutional” zoning that is no longer applied to privately owned land; some of it was zoned R-1, which allows for only single family homes; and only a small portion of it was zoned commercial. In order to get top dollar for the property she’d first have to get all of it rezoned as commercial property, which would allow for the construction of apartment buildings:
But the city wasn’t interested in changing the R-1 zoning. In his July 18, 1995 letter to Thibeault, [city development officers] Mike Woods makes a counter-offer, offering to buy two acres at the rear of the property for $38,000. “The balance of the area zoned P&I, excluding the R-1 portion, will be recommended for redesignation to Highway Commercial (C-2B) at a Public Hearing on 23 August 1995.”
The public hearing never happened, and on October 4, 1995, Thibeault wrote Woods to reject the $38,000 offer because it “is below the market value of its Commercial Land Designation.”
And there the matter dropped. Neither city — not the former city of Halifax, nor the new city of HRM — would buy any of the motel property, and neither city held a public hearing to rezone any of the motel property.
It’s important to note that through all of this, while the city officials entertained the idea of buying at least a portion of the west part of Thibeault’s land that was zoned Park and Institutional, they were adamantly opposed to rezoning the southern portion of her land that was zoned R-1.
Eventually, Thibeault sold the property to Nassim and Solomon Ghosn for $600,000:
The Ghosns’ purchase of the motel property was conditional — they gave Thibeault a $10,000 deposit, good for six months. Final sale was “subject to the [Ghosns] negotiating and obtaining a Development Agreement with the Halifax Regional Municipality.” …
But the Ghosns weren’t able to line up all the approvals for development by the end of the six months, so on April 3, 1998 they paid Thibeault another $10,000 deposit to get a six-month extension.
Finally, on October 2, 1998, the sale was completed, between Thibeault and a numbered corporation controlled by the Ghosns.
Another six months later, on April 29, 1999, HRM issued a development permit to W.M. Fares, to construct a 72-unit apartment building on the former motel property the Ghosns had purchased. (By this time they had renamed their numbered corporation “Prince’s Lodge Estates Incorporated.”) The permit says that all 8.61 acres are zoned C-2B.
The R-1 zoning issue was never resolved—there had never been a public hearing about a change in zoning, and city council never voted to change the zoning. In contradiction of land use policies and provincial law, city staff had approved construction of an apartment building partly on land zoned for single-family detached homes.
Neighbours to the property tried to step in and stop the development, but were basically out-lawyered. I concluded:
There’s a paper trail of dozens of documents leading back to at least 1988, with officials from the planning department, the park department and the legal department all making clear that they had no intention of recommending zoning changes for the property, and that such changes would need approval by city council in any event.
And yet, by 2000 all the zoning problems were washed away, with a new site map that completely contradicts three previous site maps — without council approval, and seemingly with a wave of the bureaucratic hand. It’s possible that there was a system breakdown, and all the multiple actors unintentionally screwed up in precisely the same manner — but is it really possible that the entire city bureaucracy across three departments made the same mistake at the same time without coordination?
tl;dr version: an old lady was trying to get her property rezoned so she could sell it for a lot of money, but the city refused her. When rich and connected developers obtained the property, however, all the zoning issues were miraculously made to go away without the usual public hearings. The rich and connected developers built three apartment buildings and made a gazillion dollars, while the old lady died with a relatively small estate which was itself preyed upon by a politician.
I seem to be the only one who cares about this.
But the point is, if you want to make a lot of money as a developer, just get the rules changed.
Which leads us to last night’s public information meeting for a development proposed for the Cruickshanks Funeral Home property on Robie Street. Westwood Group bought the property in 2013 for $575,000.
Westwood presented two development options to the public: a 22-storey apartment building that uses 23 per cent of the lot, or a six-storey commercial building that uses 70 per cent of the lot. So: would you like a flaming pile of poo, or a non-flaming pile of poo?
However, reports Pam Berman for the CBC:
The current planning rules would not allow either design. The developer will have to apply for a development agreement.
That of course won’t be a problem, because reasons.
Here’s an idea: build stuff that fits within existing zoning rules.
4. Sexual assault
An RCMP release from yesterday:
On June 3 at approximately 5:40 p.m., a man was sitting in his parked vehicle outside a store in Middle Musquodoboit when a Mazda car pulled into the parking lot. A man got out of the passenger side of the Mazda and entered a store. Immediately a woman exited the driver’s seat of the Mazda and passed a note to the man sitting in the parked vehicle. The woman looked extremely upset and gestured for the man to call, and quickly got back in her vehicle. Her male passenger exited the store, got into the Mazda and they drove away.
The note said “please call police” and included an address on Elderbank Back Rd. The man immediately called 911.
Halifax District RCMP responded by travelling to the address where they located a man and woman inside a residence. The man was in breach of previous court ordered conditions. He was arrested without incident and taken into custody.
The General Investigation Section of the Integrated Criminal Investigation Division took over the investigation and charged 50-year-old Kevin Joseph MacDonald of Cole Harbour with: Sexual Assault Aggravated Assault Forcible Confinement Uttering Threats Against a Person Uttering Threats Against Property Theft Under $5,000 Assault with a Weapon Overcome Resistance by Choking Breach of Probation (x 2) Breach of Recognizance (x 7)
MacDonald appeared in Dartmouth Provincial Court today and is being held in custody until his next court appearance on June 26.
During the course of the investigation it was revealed that after the woman handed over the note to the man in the parking lot, she and the male passenger drove back to Elderbank Back Rd. During the drive, the male passenger allegedly struck her in the face. At the time the woman noticed an oncoming car whose brake lights abruptly came on after passing her vehicle. Investigators believe the driver may have witnessed the woman being assaulted and would like to speak with the driver.
Transportation Standing Committee (Wednesday, 1pm, City Hall) — lots of important things on the agenda.
Halifax Green Network | Final Phase Development (Wednesday, 6pm, Musquodoboit Valley Bicentennial Theatre and Cultural Centre, Middle Musquodoboit) — info here.
Public Meeting – Campaign Finance Accountability (Wednesday, 6:30pm, Harbour East Community Council Meeting Room, Alderney Gate) — info here.
Public Open House – Case 20719 (Wednesday, 6:30pm, Maritime Hall, Halifax Forum) — W.M. Fares Architects wants to build an eight-storey building at 5516 Bilby Street.
North West Planning Advisory Committee (Wednesday, 7pm, the four-pad arena in Bedford with the name of a fucking bank plastered on it) — Armco wants to build stuff in Sackville.
I don’t have time to read the agendas this morning. I’ll update tomorrow.
Appeals Standing Committee (Thursday, 10am, City Hall) — agenda.
Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee (Thursday, 1pm, City Hall) — agenda.
Design Review Committee (Thursday, 4pm, City Hall) Agenda not yet available.
Harbour East-Marine Drive Community Council (Thursday, 6pm, HEMDCC Meeting Space, Alderney Gate) — agenda.
No meetings this week.
No public events.
Marine Protected Areas — For Whom? (Thursday, 7pm, the theatre named for a fucking bank, Marion McCain Building) — a panel with Sean Brillant, Maxine Westhead, Ken Paul, Paul Barnes, and Veronika Brzeski.
In the harbour
6am: ZIM Texas, container ship, arrives at Pier 41 from Algeciras, Spain
8am: Atlantic Crown, oil tanker, sails from Imperial Oil for sea
9:15am: Grandeur of the Seas, cruise ship with up to 2,446 passengers arrives at Pier 22 from Saint John
11am: ZIM New York, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from New York
4:30pm: ZIM Texas, container ship, sails from Pier 41 for New York
7pm: Grandeur of the Seas, cruise ship, sails from Pier 22 for Baltimore
I’m tied up with stuff all day, including an appearance on The Sheldon MacLeod Show at 2pm. I doubt I’ll be able to respond to email or anything else.
I think that “Development Agreements” are sometimes very fuzzy. There are a number of zoning regimes in place around the city that “allow development by development agreements” – meaning that you can’t build a thing *without* a development agreement, but getting one is exactly what you’re supposed to do.
It’s like the city saying that you can generally use your parents’ car, but you have to tell them exactly what you intend to do with it, they do still have a veto if you propose anything too stupid, and they can tell you to go pick up milk in addition to whatever you wanted to do. …but yes, you have general right to use it.
So in many areas, the requirement to have a development agreement isn’t “breaking” the zoning at all – it’s part of how the zoning is supposed to work. A development agreement can specify a number of things that are very specific to the project – a number and location of trees, colours of walls, grade of the driveway to the underground parking, extent of balconies on a certain side of the building, whether a podium includes amenity space for all residents, all sorts of things that are too detailed and specific than a general zoning by-law would normally include.
One of the things that I really like about DAs is that they can lock in things that are shown in the renderings the developer presents. You know the shtick – developer shows off fancy, colourful, welcoming pictures of a wonderful development during approvals, then the thing that gets built doesn’t have half as many nice features. A well-written DA can say “Look – you had exactly 37 trees in your rendering, we’re going to put ‘…a minimum of 37 trees of various heights and species…” into the DA.” That way, we have some promise that we’re going to receive what we gave societal (or at least governmental) approval to have built.
So – in my mind there are two things that you’ve got absolutely right:
* Building contrary to zoning without any public hearing: what the hell?
* Following up with developers to ensure that what they *actually build* is in line with the development agreement they signed: critical.
…but it should be clear that the very presence of a DA doesn’t (necessarily) mean that someone is getting a free pass to violate zoning.
Thanks for articulating what I was thinking.
Good comment, Ashley. Development Agreements are very much misunderstood in this city. They can only be used where the Municipal Plan and the Land Use By-law say they can be used. I.e. they are actually the exact opposite of skirting planning rules.
Council/HRM is partly to blame for this misunderstanding, because what they have done many times in the past is change the Plan and the Land Use By-law to allow site-specific development agreements. So the the development agreement itself isn’t really the problem, but the changing of the conditions that allow the development agreement. The distinction is a subtle thing, and probably comes off as nitpicky/bureaucratic to many people, but it’s important because the current misunderstanding disparages development agreements, which (as you say) can actually be a very useful tool if used well.
I think too that there is this weird idea that changing the Plan and Land Use By-law is inherently a bad thing. The whole “stick to the Plan” mentality. Yes, it maybe happens too often or sometimes for the wrong reasons, but not ALL changes are bad. Planners write these things with the best information available at the time, but the conditions change; planners aren’t wizards and they can’t see the future. Think of how much has changed in 40 years (the age of some of these plans)… can we confidently say the residents, planners, and Council of 40 years ago got it all right? I mean, these are the people who built Scotia Square and wanted to punch a freeway through downtown. It’s important to be able to update planning documents over time to reflect changes in society.
To this particular site: does anyone really think 35 feet is truly an appropriate use of the location? This site is on probably the widest right-of-way in the city, has good transit access, is close to tons of services, and is across from a huge recreational resource. If there is any place to put a big building and lots of people in this city it is here. And I think it’s a pretty big stretch to call either of the designs a pile of poo; they’re actually pretty decent. I’d personally like to see this project (and every other pending planning application on the Peninsula) folded into Centre Plan, because that’s more efficient for the over-burdened planning department and because it allows a more holistic review of development, but I’m not against the development itself.
You’re absolutely right.
I *do* generally support “stick to the plan” philosophies, but only when the plan has been written, or at least re-evaluated, somewhat recently. Social licence expires at some point, and there needs to be something there to replace it. At the moment, our plans are so old in some parts of the city that there is no good answer: Ad-hoc amendments are a very poor subsitute for a good plan. And, as the article discusses, they privilege those with more money to pursue them.
I do think that, now that the Centre Plan is actually on the near horizon, it may be more reasonable to limit further amendments to the old plans. However, say, 3 years ago, they were the only way to proceed.
It took 6 months for Halifax Transit to write a FO report to Council. The problem begins right there, and it is not unique to Transit.
If HRM’s Regional Council gives Halifax Transit a directive and Halifax Transit says they will not adhere to said directive, then I guess Halifax Transit must feel that it is not obligated to recognize HRM Council’s authority in this matter. So who does Halifax Transit think they work for? Who does Halifax Transit actually work for?
Re Transit Consultant and Thibeault Land Development
Both share a disturbing theme: lack of transparency.
In Erica Butler’s piece, illogical, territorial reasons are cited in defense of in-house vs outside consultation. Try applying the reasons cited to the validity of second opinions in medicine, law, or architecture. They simply don’t wash and raise serious suspicion of some type of coverup within the existing system, some visceral fear of exposure or of rocking the boat … er, the buses.
In your stunning exposé of how the late Mrs. Thibeault was screwed in her attempt to have zoning addressed, we still don’t know how zoning codes were magically and invisibly transformed to allow the development which now exists.
How many share Councillor Karsten’s contempt for the press, for the harsh spotlight of investigation and disclosure? How many individual reputations are being protected, guarded from what Councillor Karsten termed media intrusion? Tradition dies slowly and reluctantly in the Maritimes, and institutions have long wielded control of information through influence and sheer manner of info production. We’re now in the digital age, and our public concept and demand of electoral responsibility and accountability have simultaneously progressed and matured. Certain City Hall occupants need to get with the times.