Environment featured

Judy Haiven: Why is it that in Halifax developers always come out on top??

A rendering of the Willow Tree building as approved by Council.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – A few months ago, APL Properties Ltd announced that rather than building 209 apartment units, APL was going to shoe-horn 295 apartments at their Willow Tree site.  

That’s nearly a 30% increase—in developer’s profits.  

As many know, the Willow Tree is a hotly contested hi-rise development in an older neighbourhood of  two and three storey family homes. Hundreds of Haligonians wrote letters, appeared and spoke at council meetings — all in a bid to stop APL Developers from building its gargantuan 29 storey building – now reduced to 25 storeys — at the corner of Quinpool Rd and Robie St.  

APL’s design that started out with two hulking towers is now one colossal vertical slab which is supposed to have 10 affordable family-sized apartments.

If Halifax Regional Municipal (HRM) council had not been in such a hurry to prove they are cosy-friends of developers and builders, it should have waited for a few months to give its approval.  

Then the Centre Plan would (likely) kick in and mandate 36 affordable units for a building of that height – rather than the paltry 10 we may end up with.  I say ‘may end up with’ because with a 30% increase in the number of apartments, each apartment will have to be ever so tiny – perhaps 600 plus square feet.  At that size, family apartments and affordability are likely off the agenda.

Westwood, blocking the library’s view of Citadel Hill

And then there is the case of Westwood Developments Ltd building across from Halifax’s new Central Library.  Westwood decided to build a new hotel-apartment-retail complex which blocks a complete view of Citadel Hill from the Library.  

The Central Library, a signature building and one of the few public buildings built in Halifax in decades, boasts a “Living Room” on the top floor.  The Living Room, which is a reading room with comfy chairs and glass walls on three sides, was designed to have panoramic views of Citadel Hill and the Halifax Harbour.  However neither HRM’s Planning department nor Regional Council decided to protect the view through legislation or negotiation.

Instead, in a huge war of words – and deeds – Danny Chedrawe, Westwood’s President, insisted his new concrete and glass bunker would not destroy the view of the Hill.

However Dalhousie University architecture professor Steve Parcell demonstrated how the height and massing of Chedrawe’s bulding would indeed block the Library’s view.

Hundreds of people signed postcards and letters to the city demanding Chedrawe’s building not obscure the public’s view of Citadel Hill.  

Today the concrete and glass bunker is built, with high end retail shops at street level (what else is new?) – and we, the public, no longer see Citadel Hill from our library’s  “living room”. Chedrawe’s comments have proved false. Nevertheless, it’s Chedrawe who has the last word – after all his building is built and we don’t have the view.

Rendering of the new YMCA building.

Now we come to the new downtown Halifax YMCA.  Buried in the hoopla around the forecasted opening of a new Y for late 2019, is the fact that once again the city has been duped.   

Nearly seven years ago, HRM council agreed to more than double the allowable height limit from 23 to 49 metres because the Y provided a “public benefit.”  The height variance was sought to create hundreds of high-end condos or apartments, on top of the Y.

At the time, Parks Canada objected to the height variance because the two new buildings would “negatively impact the physical and symbolic values of Citadel Hill” as the new Y would tend to dwarf the national historic site.  Even the city’s own Design Review Committee disagreed with giving the height variance to the developer, citing its impact on Citadel Hill – not to mention creating huge shadows as it also looms over the city’s Public Gardens.  

But the kicker these seven years later is this:  part of the “public benefit” of the Y was supposed to be its new state-of-the-art daycare centre.  The old Y had a very respectable non-profit childcare centre; when the old Y closed in 2014, the centre was moved to an old church on Robie Street.  Now that centre has closed yet more and more families still require licensed quality childcare on the Halifax peninsula.

Recently, the advertising and promotion for the new Y has changed.  Now the Y promotes its Family Development Centre –basically a big open space where parents can play with their kids.  The new Halifax Y boasts a huge gym, swimming pools, four wellness studios, one spinning room — but no childcare centre.  

Again the city has been caught with its pants down – just last week the Y asked council to contribute $1 million to building the Y because of cost over-runs.  They’re not kidding – building costs have increased nearly 20% to $37 million since 2011. Both the province and the feds each gave $5 million to the project. And while the family of the late John Lindsay donated $3 million – the public through our taxes donated three times more.  Yet the Y will be named after Lindsay.

Getting back to the childcare centre, as Tim Bousquet points out in the Halifax Examiner, the developer, Southwest Properties, and the Y decided to forego the daycare centre.  

One reason is that regulations stipulate that childcare centers should be located on the main floor to facilitate easy exit in the event of fire. But the new building’s main floor is earmarked for retail stores, not childcare.  

Secondly, the provincial government has now rolled out its free pre-primary school program available to most families with four-year-olds.  So childcare centres are now catering mainly to younger children. Because there is a higher staff to child ratio in the care for younger children, it is more expensive to provide childcare to them. S

ince the pre-primary program is available and free of charge, families will not typically utilize daycare for their four year olds.  So families of older pre-schoolers will no longer offset the costs of care for toddlers and babies. So the Y decided to ditch the idea of childcare altogether.

Yet childcare was part of the public benefit which allowed for the  original height to be doubled.

Here we have three developers who’ve managed to get what they want from the city – and give almost nothing back.

Judy Haiven is founding member of Equity Watch. She can be reached at equitywatchns@gmail.com


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  1. This is a great write-up of just a few of the embarrassing losses in the debacle that is developers taking advantage of city hall. What I would love to hear is city hall’s response.

    1. Say it isn’t so – Councillors take great offense at the very suggestion, Cr. Karsten especially. Couldn’t possible be true.

  2. This is a really important story – the erosion of public commitments to public benefits in Halifax over time is disturbing. The next challenge will be how the City deals with the public land that comprised St Pats High School. Keeping public lands in the public sphere is a battle worth fighting…

  3. The NS Day Care Act permits child care on the second floor (only infants must be located at ground level). Few Licensed centres in the city use the ground floor only because of the difficulty in obtaining ground floor space. The YMCA Halifax was designed with the centre located on the third floor. This would not be permitted. So while part of the issue may have been the pre-primary program and the ratios needed to operate the centre, a bigger issue may have been the fact that the YMCA and architect seemed to overlook the regulations and designed/approved a building with a child care that couldn’t actually be licensed under the Act.

  4. Of course the Y & its architect had to know the regulations about childcare being on main and 2nd floor. This is appalling. Obviously deliberate obfuscation which now means NO DAYCARE centre at all.

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