Fenwick developer hopes to set a new precedent in Halifax

Co-written by Rachel Caroline Derrah

HALIFAX – Fenwick Tower, the 40-years unfinished, 33-storey butt of the anti-development community’s — nay, everyone’s — jokes is going through an identity overhaul. And, if all goes according to the proposed plan, it’s taking the city with it. For decades skeptical fingers have pointed in the building’s direction, naming it a quintessential example of bad development — a living argument against changing Halifax’s height restrictions.

But Joe Metlege of Templeton Properties — 7-month owner of the infamous high-rise — aims to “flip that.” He sees potential in Fenwick Tower to become an example of development gone right, envisioning fingers across the country pointed Halifax-bound, towards a new precedent in innovative renovation of the Le Corbusier-inspired ‘tower in the park’ design, which was prevalent in the 1960s and 70s and is widely critiqued for its brutality and context insensitivity.

This Tuesday, March 9th, Templeton’s application to amend the Municipal Planning Strategy and Peninsula Land Use By-law to allow for mixed-use re-development of the Fenwick site will come before Regional Council.

An earlier Spacing Atlantic article on the development — admittedly tinged with cynicism towards large luxury developments — asked what type of vitality the renovated high-rise might bring to the South end, and how changes to this iconic building might impact the city’s identity.

We’re pleased to report that questions just like these have been used to guide the design and consultation process. Templeton’s engagement process intentionally brought together some of the most notorious pro- and anti-development groups to discuss, contribute to, and take ownership over the design proposal.

“The team has looked at lots of models all around the world, but ultimately it came down the community and what they wanted to see here” reports Metledge. Rather than present a proposal upfront, Templeton opted to involve community stakeholders from stage one.  “We literally came [to the community] with nothing. We had the site boundaries, we had the site plan showing the parameter of the building, and that was it.”

Using dotmocracy, a transparent group decision-making tool, a focus group composed of 13 local organizations was invited to take part in visioning and designing the development. After further consultation with 4 local councillors, and two open house events each hosting over 200 people, it became clear that public approval was a priority. Such extensive community engagement by a developer is rarely attempted in Halifax.

Pioneering — in both consultation and design — seems to be an explicit aim for Metlege. “I know for a fact a lot of people are watching what happens here. Legislatively they’re watching but also architecturally they’re watching,” he says. “The architectural flare to the site is unique.”

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The design adds a glass shell to the existing tower, as well as a street-scale addition that stretches forward to meet Fenwick Street. Two new buildings — 10 and 8 storeys, respectively — will flank the high-rise, simulating a gradual height transition. From an environmental standpoint, the design proposes a 50% reduction in emissions, and aims for LEED equivalency, including a number of green roof locations, a greywater system, and energy-efficient lighting and appliances.

While the majority of residential units will be geared at middle and high-income renters, and a portion may be alloted to condos, 10% will be designated affordable housing.

From a community perspective, perhaps most interesting is the pedestrian walkway which will weave through the three buildings, linking Fenwick to South Street. Using Halifax’s Hydrostone neighbourhood as a model, shops and restaurants will line the walkway, with opportunities for ten public art displays already identified. This pedestrian thoroughfare will connect neighbourhoods and promote the local economy, through, according to Metlege, a mandate of hosting local businesses.

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Heading into tomorrow’s Regional Council meeting with high hopes, Metlege continues to seek out vocal community support for the proposal. He hopes that HRM will apply priority to the site, acknowledging the potential impact on the city, and recognizing their “responsibility on getting the process going.”

It could be added that it is our responsibility as citizens to continue to be bold with our own visions for Halifax, for us to engage in this shared processes of city building, and to hold private and public sector leaders accountable to the visions they engage us in. The proposal for Fenwick Tower is a good place to start.

Photo by Dean Bouchard, member of the Spacing Atlantic flickr pool. For more photos of Fenwick, see derivative’s series of photos of the iconic tower.
Renderings courtesy of Templeton Properties.

6 comments

  1. It’s interesting to see a developer trying to squeeze more money out of a much-hated building. But his “renovations” will destroy whatever heritage value the original property has. Perhaps it would be better to leave the windy cement slab the way it is now so that future generations of architects and urban planners can see what megalomania and an insular ideology look like when translated into the built environment.

  2. Awesome! Pls post a followup on what happened at the council meeting.

    Cheers.

  3. This looks like a great proposal. Hopefully, it gets approved by Council.

  4. This developer deserves credit for taking on a notoriously troublesome building – at a risk of many tens of $ millions – and apparently trying in earnest on the downward curve of a building boom to transform it.

    But:

    This proposal as depicted is so dreadfully ‘Eighties. It comes off sadly lacking in promise, boldness, originality, creativity, and appears as out of touch with the site, the community, and real environmental factors such as hurricane-force southerlies and northerlies as the present tower – particularly in an era in which engineering, CAD, an awareness of symbiotic and green systems, and marvelous materials innovations have all given rise to a new sense of the possible; to new, graceful, beautiful sculptural forms.

    It is indeed an architectural “flare [sic, above]”; perhaps a warning flame-up to the mediocrity and inefficiency of our public consultation -heavy civic leadership, and how development mistakes of the recent past seem to inform and plague projects of the future, as if something that looks awful has to be incorporated into the pattern just because it is now part of the surrounding fabric. What this building still very much craves is architectural *flair* and vision: What is it about local architects like Keddy, MacKay-Lyons, and Crace who are so dreadfully fixated on the very same random curvilinear roofline as above (Dal School of Architecture addition, Stadacona, and now this)? Why has that awful, bland and uninspired roof form become so prevalent in our skyline identity of the present, this past 15 years? If that’s what they keep doing, Joe, then why hire a local architect?

    I frankly like Fenwick’s present form, and always have. In my view Halifax is missing an opportunity to position itself as an architecture / tourism destination gem of post-Brutalism preservation / reformation to followers of architecture and urban design in an age when Brutalism is being razed world-wide – especially in former Soviet Block countries and East Germany.

    We could be one of North America’s leaders of the genre, well within Zip Car range of communities brimming with awe-inspiring examples of a decade of post modernist vision such as Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Its plaid flannel shirt-wearing and beard toting, horn-rimmed glasses adorned X & Y generations (and their notable disposable incomes) would flock here in droves to have a look.

    Instead of sponsoring, featuring and encouraging tired old tropes and metaphors such as lighthouses, faux mansard roofs and gratuitous arched windows (and pointlessly arched roofs – see the the above rendering), overdone mermaid, lobster, dolphin and lighthouse sculptures – hardly original, completely random Maritime iconography – let’s embrace and preserve our stark concrete urban renewal reality. Let’s tweak and spin it as a component of our 21st century identity.

    Fenwick Tower, Scotia Square, Maritime Centre, Cogswell Interchange, Eisnor Tower, even Purdy’s 1 & 2 – to name but several – are all crown jewels in our Post-Brutalist dreamscape. They may need to be recut, and even reset – but they are us.

  5. I have to agree with A.E.Self here, although perhaps not entirely. It’s a shame to take such a famous (infamous?) building and give it the glass-generic face lift. Fenwick is iconic, in this city, and of its time. Why scrap what might be its single redeeming feature for the new beige in residential tower design? Where is that first rendering set? Vancouver? Toronto? Who knows, who cares? 

    That’s not to say it shouldn’t be redeveloped; it absolutely should. It seems much thought has gone into creating a wonderful piece of urban design. Indeed all the noted attributes of the redesign are the things urban development should strive for. Not to mention the commendable effort on the part of the developer.

    I just can’t help feeling that there is a more interesting building waiting to be designed here. One that integrates instead of replaces, and leaves the legacy of the original Fenwick intact, if at least partially.

    That being said, I shudder at the idea Halifax (or anywhere) aspiring to become a repository for the most finely preserved collection of brutalist urban failures. I’d rather have tourists saying “I can’t believe people *get to* live here”. Is that cynicism in your pocket A.E Self? Or just taking an easy shot at nouveau-hipsters? I had to laugh; I’m 24 and am currently wearing a plaid flannel shirt, but I’m clean shaven, don’t wear glasses, and I’m poor as dirt.

    Hey that rhymed.

  6. “In my view Halifax is missing an opportunity to position itself as an architecture / tourism destination gem of post-Brutalism preservation / reformation to followers of architecture and urban design in an age when Brutalism is being razed world-wide – especially in former Soviet Block countries and East Germany.”

    Ah yes, I can see the tourism slogans now. “Halifax – Experience Our Bland Concrete!” There’s a reason Brutalism is being wiped out – it’s obsolete, ugly, uninspired, and depressing to look at. Nobody is going to want to shell out the cash to travel all the way out to Halifax in order to take pictures in front of the Fenwick Tower, I think you overestimate what you can plausibly sell as a tourist spot.

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