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Landing the plan

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The most exciting thing happening in Halifax development is, strangely enough, a bureaucratic exercise---the HRM by Design planning plan. (The new Farmers’ Market comes in a close second.) HRM By Design started in July 2006, asking for public ideas on improving the city’s urban core, continued through more brainstorming sessions and updates, and almost two years later, the public is still committed to the effort. About 400 people turned up last Wednesday night for forums at the World Trade and Convention Centre, where By Design point person Andy Fillmore presented the latest draft of the downtown Halifax chunk of the plan. And people at the forums were happy with the progress.

“If the city looked like this, it would improve my quality of life immediately,” an entrepreneur told me, as she traced her walk from north end home to Barrington Street business on a map of improvements suggested in By Design. I also heard praise for how the plan deals with the main bone of contention about building downtown: height vs heritage. “The Heritage Trust people think the plan goes too far. The Greater Halifax Partnership doesn’t think there’s enough tall buildings,” said a local artist. “In between those fringe groups there’s plenty of room for me.” The plan has found the acceptable Haligonian middle ground, without settling for middle-of-the-road design goals.

Of course, several previous downtown studies have described similar improvements---to no effect on the street. Modern principles of good urban design are widely understood, if rarely practised in Halifax. However, By Design builds on earlier studies by figuring out the necessary bylaw changes to turn its visions into the way things are supposed to be done. The result is that over its several hundred pages, the five-volume plan includes prose like this objective: “To conserve the historic character of Barrington Street and ensure that new development is supportive of and harmonious with it in terms of height, massing, size, scale, proportion, materials and architectural features.” But it also specifies amendments to such legislation as Regional Plan subsection 6.1.1, Development Abutting Registered Heritage Properties, Policy CH-2.

Like a self-replicating computer virus, By Design is a feisty bit of code that refuses to join all those other planning documents on the long, dusty shelf at City Hall. In this way it may reflect Andy Fillmore, who patiently rushed around listening to the people who lingered after Wednesday’s forums. Somebody said “Congratulations,” and he replied “Tell your councillor.”

Ahh yes, council is the next destination for By Design. Pending any last public comments, this latest draft of the plan goes to council in May, for final approval and adoption as early as July. Preliminaries of the plan have been to council before, always receiving unanimous support from the councillors. They’ll likely approve it again. But will they support it? There is a difference.

Approval changes the relevant laws and imposes design guidelines that effect any new developments. That’s good for whatever development happens to come along. Support means investing public money in the streetscapes we walk today--- kick-starting the plan into action, encouraging developers to join the revitalization. Approval is a vote. Support can be measured by what happens to the Cogswell Interchange.

Getting rid of the concrete highway in favour of normal downtown blocks would do a whack of things at once, including showing that city hall is serious about city improvement. Heritage defenders are cool with tall buildings on the Cogswell land, and by losing the overpass several acres of valuable land are gained. “Repeatedly throughout project consultations the community has been nearly unanimous in requesting that the Cogswell Interchange be removed,” says By Design. That ball is about to land in council’s court. Mayor Peter Kelly and a city staff were quoted in the daily saying the demoliton will cost from $8 to $12 million---a lot of money for this town (see “Nothing going,” page 7). But it doesn’t take much vision to see that it’s worth it.

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