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Waterside middle ground?

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The photo of the glass office building the Armour Group proposes to build inside a frill of reconstructed heritage facades in the middle of Historic Properties ("Historic indecision," Sep. 18, News) says it all! There is no way the developer's current proposal to reduce the building by a couple of storeys in return for a tax break will make much difference. The building will still be egregiously out-of-scale with its neighbourhood.

Perhaps the developer's proposed changes are also driven by considerations other than the citizenry's concern for the historical properties. In the Oct. 1 Chronicle-Herald, David Chaundy, senior economist with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, suggests that with banks collapsing in the US, the financial services provided by local companies may be less in demand for a while. Ben McCrea, chair of Armour Group, suggests companies looking for office space will want to control their operating costs, "So they might think twice before settling on a high-end space." Besides which, says McCrea, there is a serious credit crunch that will make new developments difficult, though "smaller" projects like Armour Group's Waterside "could go ahead, but the risk will increase." Most interestingly, Danny Chedrawe, of Westwood Developments, says a development slowdown provides an opportunity for planners and city officials to get their house in order so they are prepared when things turn around and development takes off again. Indeed!

The polarization of debate over the Armour Group proposal obstructs a search for alternatives. This polarization characterizes the project's supporters as those sympathetic to the developer's right to make a profit from his properties and the opposition as those determined to save heritage buildings irrespective of the cost to their owners. It leaves out most of the rest of us, though we were clearly the majority of the citizens who spoke up against the proposal at the public hearings on September 16.

We, members of the majority, are unrepresented. Nor does the media speak for us. Representing us is the job of the councillors and mayor who we elect and of the planners and public servants. But for this important decision they haven't yet done their job.

There is a middle ground of solutions that must be explored. This requires, first, an independent assessment of the developers' contention that a restoration solution for the buildings is not economically viable. How viable could it be if the existing gaps in that block were infilled to scale? If a restoration or infill scenario is not viable, what would it cost for HRM, on our behalf, to take over and restore these buildings? Could the developer be offered a land swap? Downtown is full of empty gaps where an office building (in scale with its surroundings and designed to produce minimum carbon emissions, please) could be put up when there is a demand. The middle of Historic Properties is the wrong place for the building proposed.

The federal and provincial governments were major players in saving the Historic Properties from wreckers in the 1970s. Granted, their conventional heritage support programs for homeowners or for small individual buildings don't help other historical properties. But who has asked them for more? And how have they answered?

It is unfortunate that public input was delayed too long on this proposal. But council should not undermine the integrity of this important block of heritage buildings without exploring all the options. If our planners don't have time to do a good job of this on our behalf, then council should bring in some outside help.

By Joy Woolfrey

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