The controversial development proposal for the corner of Prince Albert Road and Glenwood Avenue returned to Harbour East Community Council this evening. Up for debate, the original rezoning request and the developer’s offer to reduce the height of the building from 9 storeys (8 plus penthouse) to 8 (7 plus penthouse). If you attended the packed public hearing in December, you’ll recall that rather than reject the project outright, I asked for a supplemental staff report to consider a smaller 6 storey building. That report was back before Council and what Council opted to do was (1) approve the rezoning, (2) reject the original development agreement and (3) ask staff to prepare a revised development agreement for the shorter design for consideration at a future public hearing.
The Planning Process:
Before I get into a lot of detail on the why of Council’s decision, I think it’s important to explain how the planning process currently works when it comes to large multi-unit buildings. Our planning rules date back to the 1970s and they put a very low limit on what can be done as-of-right. The built in expectation in the existing plan is that property owners will apply for more and what “more” means will be hashed out on a proposal-by-proposal basis. It’s a very combative way to do planning. In Dartmouth, no one is allowed to build more than a three-unit building without Council approval, which is an extremely low threshold.
What is really lacking right now is clarity for residents and developers about what more than three units should involve. How big is too big? Where should larger buildings go? What design requirements should apply? There really isn’t good guidance for anyone. The upcoming Centre Plan will replace the old approach with one that provides certainty by clearly identifying where growth should happen and where it shouldn’t, and what form it should take. The Centre Plan hasn’t been enacted yet though so, for now, our imperfect 1970s rules are what we have to work with.
Under the current process, a two-stage approach is employed for developments that require rezoning and a development agreement. Zoning sets general guidance for what can happen on a property while a development agreement establishes the specific design. Both rezoning a property and entering into a development agreement requires Council to hold a public hearing. To lessen the burden on everyone involved, Council usually holds a single public hearing to consider both, even though potential approval of a development agreement comes after. This is what occurred for the Glenwood proposal back in December. At the December meeting, Council and the public looked at both the rezoning and the specific building proposal in the development agreement, but all that was technically on the floor for Council to consider was the rezoning. Here’s the December motion:
If Council had voted to rezone the Glenwood property in December, the development agreement would have returned for further consideration a few months later. What makes the Glenwood development a little bit different was my request for a supplemental report to seek design changes. Most of the time, it’s a simple yes or no that makes the second meeting in the two-stage process either anti-climatic or unnecessary.
The fundamental question on the rezoning was “is the corner of Glenwood and Prince Albert an appropriate spot for a large building?” Council’s answer to that was yes. The property is on a main street with access to services, amenities, and transit, the land is underutilized, and the area already contains a mix of uses. These attributes are precisely why the Centre Plan identifies Grahams Grove as a corridor capable of supporting medium density development. What Council hasn’t determined is what form a larger building on site will take.
I did receive some feedback in advance of the meeting suggesting that considering the rezoning separately from a revised development agreement was some sort of trap and my initial inclination was to defer the rezoning until a revised agreement could be presented to Council. I spent a fair bit of time this week though discussing the matter with staff, and reviewing the details of the Dartmouth Land Use Bylaw and the conclusion I reached is that the rezoning really doesn’t provide the developer with any more as-of-right options that don’t already exist. Below is a table outlining what’s currently allowed as-of-right in the old zone (C2) compared to the new zone (GC).
|C2 Permitted Uses||GC Permitted Uses|
|R-1, R-2, R-3, C-1 and TH (townhouses)||All residential uses (includes R-4 unlike the C-2 zone)|
|Businesses or commercial enterprises, but none that are obnoxious or create a hazard||Businesses or commercial enterprises, but none that are obnoxious or create a hazard|
|Local offices, but no more than 3 storeys|
|No cabarets or pawn shops|
And here’s what’s permitted currently in the R-2 zone at 5 Glenwood Avenue versus the new R-4 zone
|R-2 Two Family Residential||R-4 Multiple Family Residential|
|R-1 uses (houses)||All R-2 uses|
|Semi-detached dwelling||Apartments (more than 3 units requires Council approval)|
|Duplex||Lot coverage 50%|
|Group home of 6 residents or less|
|Lot coverage 35%|
The only additional rights that the developer gains from the rezoning is the ability to build a large office building fronting Prince Albert Road or two small three unit apartment buildings. With the current office vacancy rate in HRM around 20% and no established market for office at Grahams Grove, a large office building is a non-starter. Allowing R-4 uses also doesn’t do much since every apartment building of more than three units still requires Council approval. Building a small three unit building isn’t something the developer is going to do.
There has been discussion in the past of the developer building an as-of-right hotel on the property since the C-2 zone allows it. It is a theoretical possibility, but the rezoning hasn’t enhanced that possibility in anyway. The R-4 use doesn’t allow hotel so the developer’s as-of-right option to put a hotel on the front portion remains unchanged. Also, worth noting that all of the existing zoning will disappear this fall if the Centre Plan is implemented as planned (new corridor zone will come into effect).
Nothing I could see in the rezoning suggests that it was a trap or a trick. Anything the developer might actually want to build still requires Council approval and a public hearing. What it amounts to is the rezoning is simply Council indicating that the site is an appropriate spot for a larger building, the exact form of which will be finalized through the development agreement process. Step one in the two stage process complete.
5 Glenwood Avenue
I did want to touch on the question of rezoning 5 Glenwood Avenue. There were some submissions in December suggesting that 5 Glenwood shouldn’t be included in the rezoning to ensure that there is a good transition from a larger building on the corner to the rest of Glenwood Avenue. In reviewing all the material, I’m confident that the transition can be managed through good design. The developer’s proposal keeps the height on the 5 Glenwood property low (4 storeys), which matches the building immediately behind it (the Hearthstone Hotel). The elevation of the hill further reduces the impact of that four storeys to basically three. This is a good design approach to move from large to small and it’s why my motion in December for a supplemental report to look at a smaller building included “appropriate transitions.” I didn’t want to see a revised design try to make up for lost height along Prince Albert by stuffing more building onto the Glenwood parcel. I’m satisfied that 5 Glenwood can be included in the redevelopment in a compatible way and that it’s a good spot to draw the boundary.
Nine Storeys Rejected:
While Council did approve the rezoning to facilitate a project, Council also rejected the 8 plus penthouse proposal that was presented in December. I was pleased that Council supported the argument that I made that the proposal was too big for the site and not compatible with the neighbourhood. The December proposal is dead. Rejecting the December development agreement was jumping ahead a bit in the process since usually the development agreement would return to Council later. I felt though that it was important to send a clear signal that, although Council was agreeable to a medium density building (hence the rezoning), the December proposal was too much.
Future Public Hearing:
So the property has been rezoned, but the development agreement that was presented in December was rejected. What’s next? The developer indicated in December that he would be willing to remove a floor and that’s what has emerged in the staff discussions since as a formal offer. Council voted to ask staff to draft a revised development agreement and return to Council so that we can schedule a new public hearing to consider the revised proposal.
I know that removing one floor off the project won’t be good enough for everyone, and the revised design is a floor higher than what I asked for in December. There may or may not be a project here as a result. If it was six, the call would be a lot easier for me. I believe that this is this developer’s best offer though and that it’s worth putting the question of seven plus penthouse to the public. Staff will return to Council with a revised development agreement later this year and Council will discuss the revised proposal in detail after a future public hearing.
As part of the application, the developer has supplied new renderings to HRM showing the height of the revised design relative to the lake and hillside beyond. These are views that weren’t included in the December version.