Op Ed – HRM Centre Plan Process Sidelines Citizens

Community engagement has been sparse over the three-year development of the Centre Plan. photo- Ryan Taplin

Chronicle Herald, Reader’s Corner The Centre Plan process began back in 2016. The idea, based on a study commissioned by HRM and done by Stantec, was to add population density on the peninsula and in central Dartmouth to make better use of our civic infrastructure and make it more economical.

Sound good? City council certainly thought so. It established a huge planning infrastructure to begin the process and to redraw the neighbourhoods of central Dartmouth and of the peninsula.

That was almost four years ago, and council is finally expected to send the plan to a vote for approval sometime in September. This will be a mammoth change in the neighbourhood plans for the affected urban areas, and yet very few people seem to have ever heard of it.

What went wrong here?

After all, HRM has an official community engagement strategy that was developed in 2009. If thousands of our citizens are going to be affected, shouldn’t the engagement process be running at top speed this close to the vote?

If you were around and fairly active in civic affairs back in 2016, you might have heard of the Centre Plan. A launch in March of that year was followed by five neighbourhood meetings in May and June and then a series of pop-up events at a peculiar assortment of community festivals, and activities between May and October.

Notice your neighbours and your neighbourhoods have been missing from the process since early 2018? Not even a report on the changes made after the community meetings 18 months ago.

Considering the Centre Plan would reconfigure dozens of residential and commercial neighbourhoods on both sides of the harbour, the 12 pop-ups — which took place at events such as the North by Night Market, the outdoor concert series at Sullivan’s Pond, the Children’s Festival at Victoria Park, and the dedication of the Community Oven on the Dartmouth Common in July and August — seem rather strange venues for serious discussions about the future of the city. Hard to imagine a seven-year-old at the Children’s Festival being charmed by her accompanying adult buckling down for a serious discussion on urban planning.

The rest of 2016 was given over to four more community meetings and a series of 20 “Walk and Rolls” — strolls around neighbourhoods in the Centre.

And then …. nothing until 2018, when there was another series of four community meetings, and from February to May at a storefront facility in the old Royal Bank building downtown.

And then … nothing again and still nothing 18 months later, and we are now within six weeks of a possible vote. A June 14, 2019 memo from Deanna Wilmshurst on behalf of HRM regional planning segues into the situation when she admits: “Following our public consultation in early 2018, staff made a number of changes and released the revised planning documents on April 3, 2019 for presentation and review by the community design advisory committee (CDAC), with other council committees and all three community councils.”

Notice anything missing? Notice your neighbours and your neighbourhoods have been missing from the process since early 2018? Not even a report on the changes made after the community meetings 18 months ago.

But wait! You can access and read the 400-plus page report online and/or you might have attended one of the eight or 10 Halifax advisory committee meetings mentioned in Wilmshurst’s report. But you would have had to sit in the “audience” behind the committee members who normally sit in a horseshoe formation, and you would have been permitted to listen, but not to ask questions or make comments.

And so, here we are weeks before this neighbourhood-changing plan moves forward and the public has had scant information. So much for public engagement and democracy in Halifax.

Beverly Miller lives in Halifax and is Co-chair of Friends of Halifax Common