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HRM By Design: divvying up the spoils

Politics is always at the heart of development issues

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Council is heading into two months of open warfare, with three large and contentious issues coming onto the table: HRM By Design, the annual budget and so-called “tax reform.”

Tuesday, council started discussing HRM By Design, the downtown planning initiative, but before getting into the meat of the issue, they got hung up on five existing development proposals.

Understand that while HRM By Design streamlines the approval process for developers, it also puts absolute caps on the height of buildings in some areas. HRM By Design has been in the works for over three years, the proposed changes were first published in April of 2007 and will likely be adopted in full in May. But four developers have within the past year rushed forward development applications before the height restrictions are applied. They are:

  • Dexel Developments proposes a five storey addition to City Centre Atlantic at Dresden Row and Birmingham; it falls under the height restriction for HRM by Design but not the new street setback standards.
  • Dexel also proposes a 10 storey, 105-foot building to replace the former Victorian Hotel at the corner of Hollis and Morris; it would exceed the HRM by Design height limit for that site by 32 feet.
  • Toronto developer Lou Reznick proposes a 16 storey, 225-foot reconstruction of the Rowe building on Barrington, just north of Sackville; it would far exceed HRM By Design’s 72-foot limit for the Barrington district.
  • Developer Frank Medjuck proposes a 20-storey, 220-foot structure at the site of the Discovery Centre’ it would also exceed the Barrington height limit. The Barrington buildings are especially problematic because they fall within HRM By Design’s proposed Heritage Conservation District; if built, they’d make a mockery of the entire plan.

    The fifth development is a proposal, still in the “wishful thinking” stage, for a new trade and convention centre. Just a few weeks ago council rejected a proposal to put the convention centre on land freed up by tearing down the Cogswell Interchange, and so the proposal fell instead to a site now occupied by the former Herald and Midtown Tavern buildings. HRM By Design sets no height limits for the Cogswell land, but the Herald-Midtown property is limited to about 10 storeys; the convention centre proposal calls for a 18 storey structure.

    It's worth noting the Midtown site was at the centre of a previous controversial proposal for a 17 storey building. The Harbour East Community Council approved that proposal, but the UARB overrode that approval because the building would have blocked the view planes from the nearby Citadel. The provincial court of appeal upheld the UARB's decision.

    It appears council is preparing to have that fight all over again.

    Regardless, some councillors, led by Sue Uteck and Linda Mosher, want the four existing development applications “grandfathered” into HRM By Design and the convention centre given a pass. Others, including Bob Harvey and Andrew Younger, want to reject them all, but allow the convention centre to get a “economic and cultural” exception at some future date. Others want to split the difference, rejecting the four applications but writing the convention centre right into HRM By Design.

    The “economic and cultural” loophole is big enough to drive a truck (or an 18 storey building) through, but it’s argued that the convention centre has a public benefit, rather than the purely private benefit of the four other proposals. Maybe. But the issue is immensely complicated because the province and city proposal for the convention centre envisions a public-private-partnership, so regardless of the convention centre’s management structure, simply building it will result in millions of dollars profit for private developer Joe Ramia.

    HRM By Design sells itself as “taking politics out of the development process,” but as these five developments demonstrate, politics will forever be involved in development. All the council decisions even tangentially related to HRM By Design--- setting planning boundaries, establishing design standards, choosing one site over another for a convention centre, entering into P3s, deciding what is grandfathered and what is not, etc.---are political decisions, and potentially result in huge private profits.

    Before breaking for the day Tuesday, council voted to ignore height proposals for the Herald-Midtown site and opened the door for Ramia’s millions. A decision on the other four developments was put off to next week.

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