Centre Plan takes centre stage

City hall wants your help planning for development on the community’s terms.

The Centre Plan will let you take some control over the construction zone that is your city. - DYLAN CHEW
The Centre Plan will let you take some control over the construction zone that is your city.

If you go to the very back of Halifax's 306-page Municipal Planning Strategy, you'll find a 12-page list called Municipal Development Plan Amendments in Chronological Order of Ministerial Approval. That's a mouthful, so I like to call it "the special snowflake list."

For example, height precincts may allow for a maximum building height of 35 feet for much of the south end, but thanks to amendment 7.7B.1 in Section V, special snowflake 1034-1056 Wellington Street can build up to 100 feet instead. Or special snowflake 6112 Quinpool Road, that can build up to 90 feet through amendment 2.9.1 Section XII in an area that currently allows for 45 feet. There are 172 special snowflakes on the list.

Basically, the plans for our city are routinely changed for developments and their developers, and that doesn't sit well with many residents (see "Critical masses"). Public meetings regarding plan amendments are often heated and bitter. Our current building boom only fuels fears the city is growing out of control, with no vision beyond each developer's self-interest. Howard Epstein, the former city and provincial politician who's now director of Friends of the Halifax Common, recently penned an open letter to mayor Mike Savage to "consider a moratorium on development applications...pending completion of the Centre Plan."

The Centre Plan is a follow-up of sorts to HRM By Design. Where By Design focused on development guidelines for a few downtown blocks, the Centre Plan's an effort to create a modern blueprint for growth for the entire urban core. I am on the PLANifax team that made a video introduction to the plan, showing why it couldn't have come at a better time. You should absolutely watch it now. (Full disclosure: The city gave technical feedback and is credited in the video, but had no editorial control over its content.)

Currently, to get the "development agreement" that allows changes to the municipal plan, a developer has to demonstrate that circumstances have changed since the adoption of the plan to the extent the original policies are no longer appropriate. Considering the Halifax Municipal (Secondary) Planning Strategy and the Dartmouth Municipal (Secondary) Planning Strategy were both penned in 1978, this isn't a very difficult requirement to meet. For example, WM Fares' letter of intent for developing 6345 Coburg Road bluntly states "The current policies and Land Use Bylaw requirements [for this site] are out­dated and too restrictive to allow for a successful and appropriate redevelopment option."

The alternative to pursuing a development agreement is to follow all applicable policies for a site, building "as-of-right" without needing council permission or public consultation. But even these developments can be controversial. Take for example the demolition of 17 properties for Colonial Honda's expansion in the north end, or the deforestation of the Whopper Trail lands off of Chain Lake Drive for the development of big­-box retail stores. In such cases, the concerns of today's community have no bearing on the land-use choices made generations ago.

The Centre Plan is a chance for today's Halifax to not only reclaim some of those choices, but to reframe the way we talk about growth. Right now, whether a building project is done through a development agreement or as-­of-­right, it is almost always reacted to and received by communities on the developer's terms. Which is absolutely fine at one level: Property owners have the right to at least propose what happens to their properties. However, the dynamic means opportunities to propose change are much less available to the communities themselves.

As a community planning exercise, the Centre Plan seeks your help to set the agenda for growth. The city is actively engaging the public to rewrite and update plans for peninsular Halifax and Dartmouth within the Circumferential Highway. The next session for public input is Monday, June 27 at Citadel High. Drop in any time from 6pm to 9pm—there will be brief presentations at 6:30 and 7:30—to give your opinion about "Where and how should we grow?" Staff hope to have the plan finished by the fall, so your time for speaking is now.

Centre Plan Open House: Growth Scenarios
Monday, June 27, 6pm-9pm
Portia White Atrium, Citadel High School 1855 Trollope Street

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