HOWARD EPSTEIN: HRM council is kowtowing to developers

Chronicle Herald, July 8, 2019

This is the council that is making Halifax unlivable.

The main problems are in the unaffordability of housing and congested transportation. Council is not doing its basic job.

Its consideration of the two proposals for the Spring Garden Road/Robie Street/Carlton/College Street block illustrates the problem.

Not that this is the only example. Think of the clutch of 20- to 30-storey skyscrapers council has approved in the last few years. The Willow Tree. Kings Wharf. Various ones on Robie Street and Young Street.

After the first few, one councillor noted that the public had stopped coming to hearings to object. The councillor drew the incorrect conclusion that high-rises have become acceptable to residents. That is not so. We have just come to see that this council is so completely uncritical of development proposals that there is virtually no point in attending, to put better ideas forward.

Council shows no interest in thinking about what is in the best interests of the overall community. Council does show that it is prepared to say “yes, sir, yes, sir” to almost any proposal that the developers put forward.

There is an obvious list of needed priorities that council ought to be attending to before pulling out all the stops to accommodate the dreams of riches that developers have. Affordable housing. Green space. Public transportation. Energy efficiencies. Climate change.

Why does council ignore these essential matters?

Let’s leave aside the contributions to election campaigns.

What council and staff reports suggest is that this is what’s driving their decisions: demand for housing, construction jobs, more taxes, and no municipal risk (meaning, if developers want to build it, why not let them?).

Each of these is erroneous thinking.

* There is demand for housing. The issue is form and affordability. All demand for housing for the foreseeable future in HRM is already met by pre-existing approved lots (2013 Stantec study, ‘Quantifying the Costs and Benefits of Alternative Growth Scenarios’, @ Table 3.6, available online). If something different is needed, it could be through low-rise buildings compatible with existing neighbourhoods.

* Construction jobs can be achieved through alternative styles of housing. Renovations and infill generate jobs.

* More taxation is not at all guaranteed. Commercial space in the central business district has been overbuilt. That is why there is a 20 per cent vacancy rate. And why owners have asked for a lower tax rate, which shifts tax burden to the residential homeowner, since HRM expenditures will not go down.

* Risk is actually present. Not for HRM as a government, but for all of us who own houses and businesses, and who try to live here. Wind from skyscrapers make walking unpleasant, and in the steep downtown streets, dangerous. Shadows make for unpleasant canyons without sunlight, and ruin solar energy options. The housing is not affordable. The housing is not aimed at families with children. To the limited extent it is, where are the new neighbourhood parks and playgrounds for the families?

It is well-documented that there are overall environmental benefits from maintaining and renovating existing buildings compared to new construction (K. Rosenfield, The Greenest Building, 2012).

I understand the push for densification of the Halifax peninsula and central Dartmouth. Major employers, services and attractions are here (universities, hospitals, the port, the navy, government offices, the shipyard, restaurants, bars, entertainment, etc.). People want to live reasonably handy to work if at all possible. Commuting is time-consuming, expensive and irritating.

But, again, the affordability and style of housing is key. Densification can be achieved at a much lower height by looking at how we can build neighbourhoods that are pleasant, livable, and affordable. The communal effort that gave us the Hydrostone, and the maintenance of Schmidtville, are our precedents.

Council is now engaged in rushing through lots of proposals before the Centre Plan comes into effect. But the draft Centre Plan itself has many major flaws.

What is driving the Centre Plan is not innovative ways to strengthen our community. It is the fact that the developers in our midst have bought up various blocks, and the locations they own are the sites the Centre Plan is designating for high-rises.

This is not a council that is planning for the overall benefit of the community. This is a council that has fallen in love with one segment of the community. Definitely time for a change.

Howard Epstein is a former HRM councillor and MLA. He lives in Halifax.