When developers are allowed to redraw the map of the city, Halifax’s character might get lost

Whose skyline is it anyway? The architecture debate about private and public interests is on.

click to enlarge EMMA FITZGERALD
Emma FitzGerald

Downtown Halifax is torn up. We've just seen a floating boardwalk through to completion so people can avoid the mess around the waterfront, the Nova Centre construction has been going on for five years, which isn't even related to the mess that is the rest of Argyle Street—and what the hell is going on around Agricola? The only thing getting Haligonians through all this construction is the idea that the city is transforming. A mural on Barrington reads: "Old cities must reinvent themselves, otherwise they risk turning into outdoor museums," borrowing words from Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind.

The hope is it'll all look great when it's finished. But will it? A few local architects aren't so sure. If Halifax continues to develop the way it is, it will "become like every other place," predicts Brian MacKay-Lyons. He's concerned that Halifax is losing its heritage, because the things getting torn down aren't necessarily making way for "better" things. "It makes you cry, you know, when you see something disappear."

MacKay-Lyons recalls a recent walk up Queen Street from Dalhousie's School of Architecture, where he teaches. "On the north side of Spring Garden Road there's a little row of jellybean houses—little, two-storey wooden houses. You know, it's like Bambi meets Godzilla," he says. "Those nice streetscapes are being torn down and what it's being replaced by is almost invariably less rich environments."

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Limited is the design firm working with developer Scott McCrea on Queen's Marque, the construction site currently causing frustration for people walking the Halifax waterfront.

"We really see this as a district rather than an object in the city, as a public space-making project," explains MacKay-Lyons. Public spaces and "good urban fabric" are "in scarce supply these days," he adds.

"Architects, developers—all over the world, really—seem to have forgotten how to do that," he says. "Most of the good urban spaces in the world or good urban fabric in the world, urban buildings, are done a long time ago."

The aim of the Queen's Marque project is to fill that void, shaping up to be more like places such as Historic Properties or Bishop's Landing, and "less like the towers that are being built everywhere."

Alec Brown of Abbott Brown Architects agrees that although a bunch of development projects are currently in the works, most of them won't add to Halifax's "cultural fabric." The majority of them, Brown feels, "are about money and capacity and they're about, sort of, volume.

"Good architecture is the culture of a place embedding itself, sedimenting," he says, "and those layers become a richness that speaks back to the community. So it's a kind of back-and-forth relationship."

Brown sees downtown Dartmouth as a good model for growth.

"Watch this space, because interesting things are happening there—because they can happen there," he says. "Small businesses can settle there and then there's this momentum, and none of it has to be very expensive or large-scale or run by corporations from afar."

On the other side of the bridge, Omar Gandhi says "before it's completely ruined," he would like to see Barrington Street tap into its potential.

"It would be wonderful if Barrington became the core that it deserves to be, and with those elements of the past kind of intact," says Gandhi, who has design studios in both Halifax and Toronto. He also points to the area around the Granville Mall: "There's a lot of new building going on in there right now, and although it's a little bit obnoxious that there's the gym that takes up a big portion of that—I mean, that area is priceless. People would kill for that in most cities."

He suggests that while development can be good, things are happening quickly in Halifax, and it's not for the better. People need to take the time to really think about what's being built, he says, with the intention that these buildings are going to be there for a very long time. "Each and every piece that's conceived" ought to improve the city, but Gandhi doesn't believe that's currently the case.

"Unfortunately, developers are shaping the city," he says. "As a result—not all—but for the most part, it's what's making this city less attractive."

Abigail MacEachern at Architecture 49 feels differently. "Everybody's being brought to the table to discuss the topic, and I think the people who live in the city are really having a strong voice in the discussion," she says. "It's definitely a lot more noticeable now than it has been in the past."

MacEachern sees the value in maintaining an area's heritage while increasing development. She likes to work on projects which keep the heritage portion of the building intact while additions are made, such as with the Green Lantern building (1581-89 Barrington Street).

"We kept the whole front half of the building, including the floors, the ceiling, the old elevator shaft, the interior brick walls—so it really feels that the building is still there, but we've just renovated the interior," she explains. "And what we add on, we make sure that it's not overpowering, that it's still very sensitive to the front of the building, and we were very careful with the sightlines so a pedestrian wouldn't be able to see the addition to the top."

MacEachern notes that it all comes down to a balance. It can be difficult, she says, for people to understand how new buildings can work well with heritage properties. Getting it right is one of the challenges of being an architect.

Jacob Ritchie, the Urban Design program manager for HRM, faces his own challenges. His division of the planning and development department does community engagement and writes new policy. People "want the change to be a bit more incremental," Ritchie says of development. "I wouldn't say that there is always opposition to change, but there is certainly a check that the change that's coming is going to be not completely disruptive."

While there has been some resistance, Ritchie feels the majority of folks are seeing the change coming with the current building boom as a good thing. Public meetings are one way staff receives feedback on various developments, and Ritchie acknowledges they aren't necessarily reflective of community opinion as a whole: The timing doesn't work for everyone, and some folks just don't feel comfortable showing up.

Ritchie references the study "What affects perceptions of neighbourhood change?" (2016), put together by members of Dalhousie's social anthropology faculty, which found that "when residents of Halifax perceive changes in their neighbourhoods, they tend to be positive about them."

"There is, I guess, a deeper methodology needed to make sure that we're capturing the views of the people, which we've tried to do through the Centre Plan by trying different sorts of engagement," says Ritchie.

He echoes MacEachern's sentiment about combining the old with the new, also pointing to the Green Lantern building as well as the development around where Sam the Record Man used to be (1656 Barrington Street).

"I think every city has gone through this transition period," says MacEachern. She recalls being in Calgary during its own development boom, and says it was going through something very similar to what Halifax is now, including plenty of torn-up streets.

"I go back [to Calgary] now and I think 'Wow, this was all really worth it.' It's a great place to live, you know, and the street is lively now."

MacEachern sees Halifax moving towards a more pedestrian-friendly, dense urban environment. "I think that's where we need to be," she says. "I'm very hopeful."

Although MacKay-Lyons is generally unhappy with Halifax's current development, he realizes there are two ways to make a difference: "To bitch a lot" or "try to do some good things," he says. "We're in the optimism business as architects, and so we only know how to do the latter."

Feature writer Rebecca Dingwell is The Coast's staff reporter.

Feature illustrator Emma Fitzgerald is the author of the award-winning Hand Drawn Halifax, and her new book Sketch by Sketch Along Nova Scotia's South Shore is due out in September.

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