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Downtown Halifax Vision

by Tim Bousquet

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If all goes according to plan, downtown Halifax will be rebuilt as a Shangri-La on the Atlantic, with attractive buildings constructed on a human scale along pedestrian-friendly corridors leading to parks on the waterfront. People will live and work and play downtown in celebratory exultation, sidewalk cafes will flourish, puppy dogs will be petted, babies admired.

That, anyway, is what city councillors announced on Tuesday when they adopted the “Downtown Halifax Vision” of the HRM by Design planning team. It is, truly, a remarkable and commendable vision and one doubly worthy of praise, in that the public was brought into the process---thousands of people attended dozens of workshops, and their suggestions were adopted into the various design standards that will rule how Halifax evolves.

I want to believe that all this will come to wondrous fruition. I really do. But colour me skeptical.

See, basically the deal comes down to this: In exchange for streamlining the building process (read: certain approval to developers and no citizen appeals), the building and development codes will include all the groovy stuff we all want: green buildings, pedestrian orientation, height restrictions in certain corridors and so forth. We’ll then blow up the Cogswell Interchange and use the resulting land for parks, a transit station and enough acreage to serve as a relief valve for those developers who want to build ever taller buildings to make up for their personal phallic shortcomings.

It’s a pretty good deal, all in all. But one side---that’d be us, the regular people---gives up the appeal process forever, while the other side---bureaucrats, politicians, developers---will surely continue to work in their nefarious ways.Case in point: A decade ago a “rule” was put into South Bedford---no more than 2,000 units could be built until, and unless, Larry Uteck Blvd. was extended out to the BiHi. But hey, a developer pulls a few strings over at City Hall, some politicians get wined and dined and---presto!---council dumped the “rule” a couple of weeks ago. Now a gazillion more cars will be crammed onto the Bedford Highway.On Tuesday, as she was praising the downtown vision as the best thing evah, Sue Uteck said she and three other councillors had met privately with a developer of a project on Lower Water Street, and gee-gosh, these new design standards better not apply to him. Don’t worry, said the bureaucrats, we’ve got you covered.And three nanoseconds before council voted, it was made clear there will always be room for an “exceptional project” to avoid the new standards. No one said so publicly, but that could only mean developers will forever be able to build any godawful ugliness, so long as enough palms are greased.One particularly surreal bit of hilarity surfaced Tuesday when Andrew Younger asked why building owners will spend millions of dollars to transform their hideous facades into the pretty streetscapes in the drawings the planners had brought along. “They’ll get caught up in the spirit of this,” said a staffer. Huh. I see. So what good do wonderful design standards do if owners don’t care to spend the big bucks to re-construct their buildings and politicians and bureaucrats bend over backward to allow whatever exemptions and changes the development industry wants?

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