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Historic indecision: Waterside Centre

The proposed Waterside Centre development is the "hardest decision" they'll ever have to make, say Halifax councillors.


The controversial Waterside Centre development proposed for the heart of downtown Halifax's historic district remains in limbo.

A public hearing spread over two weeks heard spirited arguments from 59 people on the project, leaving little time for Halifax councillors to discuss the matter among themselves at Tuesday's meeting, so council moved back its vote on the matter until September 30. That vote, said several councillors, will be "the hardest decision I'll ever make."

The Waterside project deals with five buildings on a block bound by Upper Water, Hollis and Duke Streets and by the distinctive Morse's Tea building. Like Morse's, four of the buildings---the Imperial Oil building on Upper Water, the Shaw and Fishwick buildings on Hollis and the Harrington building, which spans the block---are registered historic buildings. The fifth building is a younger building that until recently housed Sweet Basil Bistro.

The Historic Properties, immediately to the east of the Waterside site, and Granville Mall, immediately to the west, are joined by a pedestrian walkway through the project site.

Developer Ben McCrea proposes to raze the Sweet Basil building and all but the street-side facades of the four historic buildings and build a nine-storey office complex behind and above the facades. The new building would also occupy the space presently devoted to the pedestrian walkway and a new facade in the style of the historic buildings would front the lower storeys of the building in that area, except on the Hollis Street side, where there would be an entrance ramp to an underground parking garage. McCrea's proposal does, however, include an interior pedestrian walkway across the new building.

Detractors of the project say it will destroy an irreplaceable and important piece of Halifax's history. But McCrea and his supporters say Waterside will actually preserve the historic character of the area.

Much depends on interpretation of legal restrictions concerning registered historic sites. Provincial heritage regulation applies only to the facades of registered buildings and not at all to the interior portions of the buildings. The Halifax planning code, however, insists that new construction around historically registered buildings meet undefined standards for scale and compatibility. Ultimately, these interpretations are up to council.

Most of the public input---44 of the 59 speakers---was in opposition to the project. Many condemned the project and said nothing of worth would be achieved by saving only the shell of a historic building. Waterside is "the most egregious example of historic destruction since the proposal to tear down the Historic Properties" and "deplorable Disneyfication," said Michael Goodyear, who owns a historic house on Morris Street. The new structure will be a "bland, poorly designed, no-named wall of glass," said Lori Olmstead, a NSCAD instructor.

Judith Cabrita, former president of the Nova Scotia Tourism Industry, pointed out that tourism brings $600 million to the province annually, and is the largest industry in Nova Scotia. Tourism depends on maintaining an "authentic" cityscape, she said.

McCrea was visibly agitated by criticism of his project. "For the best part of 40 years I've been an avid supporter of historic preservation," he said, referring to his work on restoring Historic Properties and on the nearby Founders Square development. "I find it very difficult to keep on the high road. I have difficulty in understanding Heritage Trust," which leads opposition to Waterside.

As McCrea tells it, no historic structure is "pristine"---the entire west side of Granville Mall was demolished and reconstructed with an additional storey and Historic Properties was reconfigured for commercial viability.

The historic buildings are falling apart, costing him "tens of millions of dollars" in potential rents, he says, and restoring the historic facades will consume 10 percent of the project's cost. Moreover, the new structure will be set back from the facades and constructed of glass, the most inconspicuous building material, thereby maintaining the historic feel of the area.

Those councillors who gave an indication of their views are divided, with councillors Sloane, Hensbee, Hum, Murphy and Harvery appearing to be opposed and Streatch, Uteck, Rankin and Karsten appearing to be in favour.

Waterside will need the approval of 14 of the 23 councillors to move forward.


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