Halifax YMCA’s Plan for the Future: Private Capital for Public Infrastructure

HALIFAX – The CBC and YMCA buildings occupy a prominent corner in Halifax – a stone’s throw from the bustling Spring Garden Road, the Citadel and Public Gardens. In recent years, its neighbours have undergone extensive changes, including the addition of the Martello atop Park Lane Mall and the construction of the Paramount Apartments, directly across from the Public Gardens. And while much of the block has “grown-up”, the CBC building and the adjacent YMCA have sat comfortably, tucked away between civic landmarks, new residential towers and a busy retail strip. But now, the CBC and YMCA are ready and willing to work together to exploit the potential of the strategic place that they hold in the city.

View in Google Streetview

Top: Current view of CBC building from Bell Road. Bottom: Conceptual rendering of proposed development.

View in Google Streetview

Top: Current view from South Park Street. Bottom: Proposed development.

In December 2010, the YMCA and CBC Radio-Canada submitted a Plan Amendment Application to HRM Planning Services to allow for the joint development of their properties. The current application seeks site specific amendments to the Regional Municipal Planning Strategy, the Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy, the Downtown Halifax Secondary Municipal Planning Strategy and the Downtown Halifax Land Use By-Law. Current regulations limit post-bonus building height to 23 metres (CBC) and 49 metres (YMCA); the application seeks to increase the height limit only for the CBC site in order to match current height limits in place for the YMCA parcel.

Existing post-bonus heights on the YMCA and CBC sites.

In March 2011, Regional Council voted in favour of allowing the amendment request to proceed (this was consistent with the HRM Staff recommendation presented in a February 2011 report to Council); a Public Information Meeting was held on April 21, 2011.

As with many proposed developments of this magnitude, brought forth on Peninsular Halifax, the joint YMCA/CBC application has created a vocal debate over issues of density, height, viewplanes, shadows and parking. So, what affect will such a project have on the city and what can residents expect in the coming months?

Few will argue with the need for such a facility on the Peninsula. The proposed YMCA facility would be a Category 2 recreational facility, offering services similar to the Dartmouth Sportsplex, Cole Harbour Place and the new Canada Games Centre. Currently, no Category 2 facility exists on the Peninsula. In their report, HRM Staff state that the new YMCA would offer a substantial public benefit without the use of any public financial support – the YMCA would build a facility that HRM is currently unable to to afford.

The overall objectives of the project reaffirms the YMCA’s commitment to the neighbourhood (where they have been located since the early 1950s): to construct a new YMCA community centre, supported by residential development, that effectively renews a prominent corner, creates jobs, generates taxes (estimated to be between $1.0-$1.125 million annually), offers new public amenity space and encourages healthy living and sustainable urban development. In addition to the 70,000 square foot YMCA space (that includes an aquatic complex, indoor running track, childcare centre, ourdoor garden, gym and fitness area), the proposal also offers approximately 335,000 square feet of residential and commercial space within short walking distances to major shopping, employment, tourist and education destinations and located on major bus routes.

The two existing buildings date back to the 1930s and 1950s and are unable to accommodate the current needs of either facility. The proposed development will allow for significant expansion for the YMCA and the integration of its currently separate radio and television broadcast locations for CBC. CBC has expressed its desire to stay in the city centre and have suggested that they may either expand their Bell Road location or rent space in the proposed development, but final plans have yet to be announced.

Opponents to the application have suggested that the YMCA’s proposal is no different than others brought forward recently, by suggesting that their attempt to alter regulations is simply meant to maximize profits. The YMCA states that a renovation of their current location just isn’t financially feasible without the requested height allowance that will allow them to generate the capital necessary to construct a Category 2 facility in this location.  Save the View – a coalition comprised of eleven community-minded organizations, including the Nova Scotia Heritage Trust – was one of the dissenting voices at the April 2011 Public Information Meeting, expressing concerns over the scale of the development in relation to the Citadel, possible adverse affects on the Public Gardens due to shadows, and the precedent set by allowing seemingly frequent amendments to existing plans and policies. Parks Canada has also expressed concern over the visual impact that the new building will make on the views from within the fort walls.

Despite their concerns, the two parcels are not governed by any existing (official) viewplanes (no piece of the entire block – bordered by Sackville, South Park Spring Garden, and Dresden Row – is affected by current viewplanes) and the proposed building is no taller than the neighbouring Paramount and Martello residential buildings.

Existing viewplanes in relation to the proposed development.

Height of proposed development in relation to existing buildings and current height limits.

The application requests that the maximum height limit for the CBC site be increased to match the limit currently in effect on the YMCA site – 49 metres. So while the increase doubles the existing height limit, the request is consistent with much of the urban block. In their report, HRM Staff recognizes that the proposed development will have little effect on shading the Public Gardens, a serious concern when evaluating any proposal located along its perimeter. However, Council shall also consider such requests when a development is deemed “to confer significant economic, social or cultural benefits to HRM” (Downtown Halifax Secondary Municipal Planning Strategy, Policy 87). In this manner, HRM Staff recommended that the application proceed to the next stage, stating that “there is merit to the YMCA proposal that warrants further detailed review and public consultation”.

While debate often focuses on issues of viewplanes and shadows, this application deals with only one issue – should an increase to the height limit governing the CBC site be considered based on the potential significant social, cultural and recreational benefits offered to residents by the proposed project?

Similar to the recent proposal for Spirit Place, brought forward on behalf of the St. John’s United congregation, the YMCA application illustrates the challenges faced by many community organizations when adjusting to changing demographics and the needs of community members. This application is a calculated attempt by the YMCA to adapt to real estate development conditions and the role they play within the 21st century city. The YMCA has been successful implementing other innovative funding solutions for redevelopment of their facilities in cities around the globe, addressing both the concerns of members, as well as the larger community. Council must consider such applications in a different light and recognize the YMCAs long-standing commitment to the development of the city and to the health and well-being of its residents.

Concept rendering showing proposed pedestrian link through existing block.

At this stage, HRM Staff are preparing recommendations (based, in part, on feedback gathered during the recent Public Information Meeting) concerning the application to amend the Municipal Planning Strategy – necessary to allow this development to proceed. After reviewing the report, Council will vote on whether or not to allow the application to proceed to a Public Hearing (where members of the public can express their views directly to Council). If approved, the final design will require a site plan approval, which will include a detailed review of building design by the Design Review Committee.

Photo sources: YMCA website and Google.

6 comments

  1. If one is concerned about views and shadows, ask for a view plane impact model and shadow impact study. It appears that the proponent has already modelled the proposed development so it should not be hard to do this. 

  2. Very informative, absolutely love the plan, long overdue.

  3. I can’t wait to see this get the go ahead. Every time Phil Pacey opens his mouth, it seems he is cementing his place as an obstructionist, and really has no place within the reasoned debate about built heritage.

  4. This is a great proposal. The Heritage Trust et al. groups don’t even bother looking at, or analyzing development proposals. They just automatically say ‘NO’. They want to turn Halifax into a muesum. Muesums are quiet, dusty, boring places that allow you to remember the way things used to be. Do we really want that for Halifax?

  5. Not quite two years ago HRM development staff pushed for the passage of HRM by Design.. It took probably four years of staff’s and the public’s time and cost taxpayers in the neighbourhood of $2 million. The payoff? It was to end forever all of the discussion about heights, massing, etc. in the downtown. Every developer would know just what the rules were and (get this) abide by them,
    Now the very same staff are pushing for the approval of this project which will do exactly what they promised would never happen again. In a letter to the editor in March, a very wise gentleman wrote, ” I believe that all policies in HRM should be written on a popsicle so they can just melt away like the resolve of our Councillors as the heat is put on them.” Substitue staff for Councillors because HRM by Design also removed Council from planning decisons in the downtown and his comment about sums up the situation.

  6. Long live the YMCA & the CBC! I think there is a difference between these operations than others & they’re not just another MacDonalds type thing. I do however think the law about height was previously established in good point & it should be stuck too. Any light changes for the Public Gardens would be very detremental to the plant life there. The soil would change (to moist). I don’t think people realize the effect that a ‘cloud’ cover would have on that natural environment, which is equally important as the YMCA & the CBC. I do however hope that the YMCA & CBC will get their deserved update in renovation. Maybe a happy medium could be met? I disagree with the person who said that the Heritage Foundation automatically says No to everything. Maybe they should join the Heritage Foundation to learn the facts of this very important foundation.

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