Council Update: Willow Tree, Halifax Water, Ceasefire, Woodside Industrial Park Zoning

Willow Tree: The first half of Regional Council was all deferred business and included the return of the Willow Tree development at the corner of Quinpool and Robie. The motion on the floor from the January public hearing was whether to allow a 20 storey building on the property. During the debate following the public hearing, Council asked for a supplementary report about allowing 25 storeys, but only in exchange for public benefits. I supported the request for a supplementary report to get a sense of the options. That report was back before us on Tuesday for Council to decide on how to proceed.

The Willow Tree is a bit of a strange situation because the developer was actually asking Council to defeat the 20 storey motion on the floor because they want Council to approve 25. At the same time, many of the speakers at the public hearing also wanted Council to say no, but because they wanted something shorter.

Most of Council’s discussion fixated on the question of what benefit HRM should get in exchange for allowing a 20 or 25 storey development. The motion on the floor for 20 storeys had no requirement for public benefits, while the 25 storey proposal sought by the developer might provide some. Council could also defeat the whole thing and, essentially, tell the developer to reapply through the Centre Plan process. The Centre Plan has a clear formula for public benefits (any development that exceeds a ground floor area ratio of 3.5) and would allow 20 storeys at Quinpool and Robie. Here’s the options that were available in terms of density bonusing.

Motion on the floor for 20 storeys

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Councillor Cleary’s 25 storeys   10 affordable units (plus burying utilities,    sidewalk)
Centre Plan formula at 25 storeys   36 affordable units
Centre Plan formula at 20 storeys   29 affordable units

There was a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma type flavour to Council’s debate. The developer has said that their project isn’t viable at 20 storeys so if it’s not 25, it’s nothing. Several Councillors cited that during the debate and it might be so, but we’ve been given nothing to judge that on. Truly not viable or less attractive? We don’t know. What I see is an aging 70s office building in a market with a vacancy rate pushing 20%, that’s been owned by the same company for over 20 years. In the absence of actual data, I haven’t put much stock in the economic argument of this being unworkable at 20. I could be wrong, but I have nothing to base it on one way or the other. As Edward Deming famously said, “in god we trust, all others bring data.”

In the end, myself and Councillor Nicoll were the only ones who voted for the 20 storey motion on the floor (Councillor Mason was away). I did so because Quinpool and Robie is a good site for a large development and staff have consistently recommended 20 as appropriate for this location.

The Centre Plan is nearing implementation, but it hasn’t yet been adopted and during this in-between time period, staff have been treating it as a background study that informs decision making. While staff have looked at the Centre Plan’s form requirements (widely consulted on), they haven’t considered the potential for density bonusing (just released) because there is no bylaw to set those parameters. Without a consistent approach, density bonusing on the fly could very quickly get messy. There are over 20 other outstanding developments that also require plan amendments that will be back before Regional Council. Are we going to make up density bonusing requirements for all of them as well? What value will we extract? Will it vary from project to project dependent on who can make the best argument to Council? There is a reason that staff have only dealt with density bonusing in a land-use bylaw (Downtown Halifax) and haven’t used it as a one-off approach. Without a consistent framework it potentially creates the very opposite of the certainty that the Centre Plan proposes to put in place for both residents and developers. Council shouldn’t be arbitrarily making things up on the fly.

After defeating the 20 storey motion, Councillor Cleary put forward a new motion for a staff report on 25 storeys, potentially in exchange for 10 units of affordable housing, a wider sidewalk and undergrounding the powerlines. Councillor Nicoll and I were again in the minority, this time voting against. This will come back in a few months and will require another public hearing at some future date. The saga continues.

Photo Toronto Star

Halifax Water Business Plan: Council endorsed Halifax Water’s 2018/2019 Business Plan. I’m sure everyone will be pleased to know that HRM’s utility won’t be applying for a rate increase this year. There will be some major projects carried out, the biggest of which is the replacement of the Lake Major Dam. The Dam is at the end of its expected life and is a crucial piece of infrastructure: when you turn on the tap in Dartmouth, the water is coming from Lake Major and its the dam that makes sure there is plenty to go around. Other major work for 2018/2019 includes a section of retaining walls on Ellenvale Run in Woodlawn and the Windmill Road Pumping Station.

Halifax Water will also be moving ahead with their lead program. The program includes grants and loans to homeowners who are looking to replace any lead waterlines on their property. It’s an important effort in Dartmouth since, although the City of Dartmouth removed almost all the lead from under the streets, the privately-owned sections providing water to individual houses were generally left in place (only 1 in 10 were removed when Dartmouth took out their lead pipes). There are still a lot of lead pipes in Old Dartmouth on private property. As Halifax Water installs the new smart meters later this year, they’ll be looking for lead so we should have a better catalogue of the problem’s extent in the near future. For more information checkout this link.

I did ask again about the storm water situation on Hazelhurst. The problem on Hazelhurst is that it’s the lowest point at the end of the line for sewage heading to the Dartmouth treatment plant. The storm and sanitary sewers are combined through Old Dartmouth meaning that when it rains really hard, the system has occasionally backed up into homes on Hazelhurst. The old idea around managing storm water was to drain it away as quickly as possible, but that requires a lot of pipe capacity since you have to build for the worst case scenario. The go-to approach these days is to slow the release of water down and let the land absorb as much of it as possible. With that in mind, Halifax Water had been looking at broadening their existing easement in Eisener’s Marsh between the Woodside Industrial Park and the Gaston Road area to hold more storm water. The Province has denied a permit for that approach though so it’s back to the drawing board. Halifax Water intends to hold a meeting with Hazelhurst residents later this year to update everyone on the status of the Utility’s efforts.

Halifax Water Admin Order: Still with Halifax Water, HRM adopted an Administrative Order to clearly set parameters around HRM and Halifax Water’s relationship. This administrative order has come out of changes made to the Halifax Water Act in April 2017 at HRM’s request. The broad details of the administrative order are:

  1. Establish competency requirements and the appointment process for the Board of Directors
  2. Consolidate Halifax Water’s financial statements with HRM’s
  3. Annual presentation of Halifax Water’s performance metrics to Council
  4. Presentation to Council of the annual business plan
  5. Review by Council of the Halifax Water Pension Plan
  6. Council oversight of Halifax Water’s unregulated activities

I did make an amendment to the Administrative Order around the appointment process to set expectations for term limits for the Board of Directors. The current practice is that Directors serve up to eight years. Since the Public Appointments Policy would no longer apply to Halifax Water, my amendment simply carried that existing expectation over into the new Administrative Order. Turnover is healthy and it’s something that I wanted to ensure remains standard practice. Council accepted the amendment 15-1.

Ceasefire Halifax. Photo: CBC

Ceasefire: Another bit of business that attracted attention was the potential for replacing the federal government as the funder for Ceasefire Halifax. The Ceasefire program was developed in Chicago and the idea is to treat violence as a public health issue in need of approaches similar to how we deal with disease: (1) interrupt transmission (2) deal with the highest risk, and (3) change community norms.

The cornerstone of the program are violence interrupters whose role is to interrupt and mediate conflicts. Violence interrupters are people with standing in the community, including people who have had violent pasts or have spent time in prison. They’re not and are not connected to police. For them to have credibility to do their work, they can’t be. Studies have suggested the model has been successful in Chicago and starting in 2013 the federal government provided four years of funding to bring the model into Canadian cities to see if it was effective here. The federal funding has since run out leaving it up to HRM and the Province to decide on the program’s future.

The Ceasefire program was evaluated by researchers at Dalhousie who couldn’t prove its effectiveness. This is in part because it’s hard to show an impact when what you’re trying to measure something that didn’t happen. We’re also a small community meaning the sample size of the program is also very small and our context is different. Violence is a problem in HRM, but our homicide rate of 1.9 per 100,000 is nowhere near Chicago’s 27.5 per 100,000. Since the federal funding was in place to test the model, it also meant that Ceasefire Halifax wasn’t able to adapt too much to fit our environment. They need to follow the Chicago model closely. Rather than replace the federal government, Council opted to adopt components of Ceasefire into HRM’s youth programming.

Woodside Industrial Park Zoning: Council also approved a motion of mine to look at the Dartmouth Municipal Planning Strategy’s requirements around transitions from industrial to residential areas. This arose after a request to rezone two institutional lots in the Woodside Industrial Park last year. Harbour East Council turned down the rezoning, because I was concerned with allowing as-of-right industrial uses right next to Dartmouth South Academy and neighbouring residential areas. That said, the existing institutional zoning also doesn’t make sense given that the provincial government doesn’t own the property anymore.

Staff and I have had a few discussions about this and about how to proceed, especially in light of the upcoming Centre Plan. Part of why it has been slow going is because whatever solution Council ends up with will need to fit into the Centre Plan. If the approach adopted doesn’t align, Council could find itself bringing in rules that only exist for a few months before the Centre Plan replaces them. Not a productive or useful outcome.

The Centre Plan’s emphasis is to reduce the number of zones and focus on managing the transition between different uses. In that light, rather than site specific requirements or the creation of a high-tech or startup zone (my initial inclination), what will likely happen is additional restrictions for industrial uses that are adjacent to residential or community uses. Policy around outdoor storage is very likely given that most of the eyesores in the Woodside Industrial Park take the form of outdoor storage yards. Outdoors storage and industrial activities aren’t always pretty and that’s okay. They serve an important function. We should aim though to reduce conflict in the transition space between them and the broader community. More to come on this one in the future.

Other:

  • Switched funding for the Herring Cove Water Project to the Fall River Water Project because the federal and provincial contribution wasn’t enough to complete the needed work in Herring Cove
  • Directed staff to continue the current approach of working with people generating large amounts of medical waste (mainly dialysis patients) on providing exemptions from bag limits on a one-off basis
  • Finalized HRM program that will allow the municipality to loan residents the cash to fix inadequate wells. Cash would be paid back through property taxes in a Solar City style approach
  • Declared a bunch of small properties scattered throughout HRM surplus
  • Approved continuing the Alderney Ferry extended schedule to May 28. This is to ensure it doesn’t just stop at the end of the fiscal year, but has an orderly conclusion should Council not opt to continue the extended hours. The real debate on this will occur on March 28.
  • Scheduled a public hearing for a development proposal around Scots Lake in Musquodoboit Harbour
  • Set the financial mandate for HRM’s bargaining team with Amalgamated Transit (ATU), Nova Scotia Union of Public and Private Employees (NSUPE), and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)

 

7 Comments

  1. Centre Plan formula at 25 stories 36 affordable units

    Where there is a 20 story height limit, according to planning, there will be no inhabited spaces above 20 stories. This option is not an option.
    There will be no exceptions for height increases under the Centre plan.

    Centre Plan formula at 20 stories 29 affordable units.

    If we’re going to build a 20 floor building in an area zoned for 20 floors and 20 floors is the absolutely max there’s no apparent incentive in the Center Plan to use density bonuses for public good.

    This really isn’t an option either is it? What am I missing?

    I do agree wholly with you Sam about this being ” the epitome of ad hoc” .. and “messy” but we have brought this on ourselves after too many years, more than twenty, of the left hand not knowing or seemingly caring to be honest what the right hand is doing on the issue of housing affordability.

    Long term and permanent disabled Nova Scotian population earn 3000.00 annually less today than in 1989. There are less than 20 of 200 licensed rooming houses in the HRM in that same time.

    Particularly for those 47 000 households identified in the Housing and Homelessness Partnerships 2015 report citing in the HRM folks spending more than 50% of their income on rent .. and as many as 20% of that group paying near 70%.

    We have to do something. Housing we have ignored. Doesn’t matter why.

    Going back to the Gym after a 20 year absence and a Cheeseburger diet to save our lives is never not messy and always by any means necessary situation if we want to fix our health problems.

    Hopefully .. even if this council shoots down the 25 floor proposition something is learned .. knowledge is gained .. and we get the clarity we need to move forward on the issue.

    For me it’s not about this development. It’s not about this corner. It’s about these systems and differing sets of responsibilities we have here in the HRM and Nova Scotia. Getting it to work for us.

    It’s about doing what we can, say in the event of an approval for 25 stories, to get that housing agreement stapled to the LUD agreement so we don’t lose… like we lost on Wyse Road. . . and just end up with a piece of land approved for 25 stories. . . for sale.

    At the same time I don’t want to miss an opportunity for good .. whilst grasping for perfect.

    I will try and follow up with my MLA and look for some feedback on where HRM is regarding the request for inclusive zoning. I got the memo.

    Carry on Sir!

    WW

    • Hey Warren. Appreciate where you’re coming from. Your position isn’t far off where some my colleagues landed. The way the Centre Plan is proposing to handle density bonusing is through ground floor area ratio (GFAR) rather than height. A GFAR of 1 would be if you covered every inch of a lot with a one storey building. A GFAR of 1 would also be if you covered half a lot with a two storey building. It’s a ratio that allows property owners to position density in different ways. There are maximum heights set in the Centre Plan (20 is the highest), but most of the calculations are done by GFAR. The draft proposes to require density bonusing at a GFAR of 3.5. Quinpool and Robie is a maximum of 20 storeys and a GFAR of 8. So to get up to 20 and a GFAR of 8 they’ll need to include affordable housing, more in fact than is on the table right now.

  2. Nice to see there is at least one councillor who understands density bonusing under the CP and can explain it. I think the issue remains the 22 proposals that are under the old amendment process …complicated with the spectre of the CP. It appears all will be controversial and none will meet the CP GFAR or the established heights. People forget that most of them under the old MPS/ bylaws would be restricted to 35 ‘ . The amendment process has been a farce for years with no real rationale being put forward to justify demands to exceed “as of right”. It seems Council forgets that it can say no or not even initiate an amendment process. Developers remain first class citizens , home owners second class. Why should a home owners property value go down to allow developers an excessive return on investment. I agree with you…show me the data. If develoers pay too much based on getting a yes from Council that is their risk not the home owner. I am fully supportive of the CP Process and realistic densification, definitely not supportative of the development at any cost espoused by certainly the last Council . If we want to put pedestrians before cars we should put neighbourhood livability before developer profit. My personal feeling on the Willow Tree is that Sean Cleary should recuse himself. One thing to support ….another to pander .

  3. I’m not clear on the timing for the Centre Plan. When is it expected to be finalized and enacted?

    Related to that, obviously, is this… Would it be onerous to the developers involved in those 22 pending proposals to just say to them, either wait for the CP or make your proposal fit the expected form of the CP?

    • When the Centre Plan comes into effect isn’t clear. It could be adopted all at once or in phases. Right now staff are consulting on the growth areas. That might end up being adopted first ahead of the established residential areas or they could go together. The last I heard, the earliest that it could come forward would be this fall. Early next year is the more likely outcome. It’s all still a bit unknown.

      For the other plan amendments sitting out there, staff have been using the Centre Plan’s form requirements as a guide. Most of the outstanding plan amendments fit into what the Centre Plan is generally calling for. Just before the election, the previous Council considered freezing everything until the Centre Plan was done. That idea was rejected so we’re left considering applications as they come in, judging them by the existing plans, while also trying to take account of where we’re going next. The Director of Planning has called it rebuilding an airplane while we’re flying it. It’s messy!

  4. Read the section on Woodside. I agree that a transition area would help to protect adjacent land owners from uncaring industrial users. I think that the both parties to a boundary should have responsibility to protect the enjoyment of the adjacent owners. It should not fall on the residential owner to singlehandedly try to screen unsightly or noisy industrial properties. The less intensive use should be protected from the more intensive uses. If a transition area is put in place we also need enforcement. One of the major problems in Woodside is that no one seems to obey the existing rules and HRM doesnt enforce or inspect the propoerties.
    Tom

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