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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Inside HRMbyDesign Part I: Heritage

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Halifax poster boards

For the next month, Spacing Atlantic will engage in an in-depth analysis of HRMbyDesign, the ambitious plan set fourth by the municipal government to transform the region over the next 25 years. This series of weekly installments will move through the plan’s various nooks and crannies, and carve out a unique and fresh perspective on the HRMbyDesign process.

Odds are if you’re reading Spacing Atlantic, you have at least some knowledge about HRMbyDesign.

While there’s been lots of coverage of  plan in the the media, most of it has not been particularly comprehensive. One reason for the limited nature of the coverage is the fact that the documents which lay out the groundwork for HRMbyDesign are composed of typically dry, jargon filled, government bureaucrat speak — not exactly a fun afternoon read.

Luckily for the readers of Spacing Atlantic, I’m interning here for a month and I pretty much have to do whatever they tell me.

Thus, we begin the first of Spacing Atlantic’s in-depth series on HRMbyDesign. This week we’ll be looking at the heritage portions of the plan.

The majority of the information that will be looked at here was found in two documents: Downtown Halifax Secondary Municipal Planning Strategy [ PDF ] (which, for the purposes of brevity, I’ll call the Downtown Plan) and Barrington Street Heritage Conservation District Revitalization Plan [PDF](The Barrington Plan).

The fact is, there are a lot of really cool old buildings in Halifax. Andy Fillmore, the Urban Design Project Manager for the Capital District, told me that there are currently 126 registered heritage properties in the downtown study area. The protection of these properties is a central component of the whole downtown plan.

The main way that heritage properties will find further protection under HRMbyDesign is through the creation of heritage districts.

For the time being there is only one heritage conservation district on Barrington. It runs along Barrington from Duke to Bishop (the three modern office towers within this strip are not considered to be part of the heritage district). .There are two more on the way though — one in the Historic Properties Area and another in the Barrington Street south area.  Fillmore believes we can expect to see these come online within the next 18 months or so.

The proposed Barrington Street South district would run along both Barrington and Hollis, from Bishop to Cornwallis Park. The proposed Historic Properties Area will include the buildings in the three blocks bounded byDuke and former Buckingham Street (now mainly taken up by Scotia square), between the harbor and Granville. This entire block is already designated as a National Historic Site, and the heritage district designation would provide even more protection.

Once all three districts are up and running, they will protect over 70% of Halifax’s heritage properties. “That means 88 of 126 of our heritage structures will be permanently protected from demolition” says Fillmore, “prior to HRMbyDesign this protection did not exist.”

Under the Barrington Plan, buildings will have to conform to a “list of character defining elements” for the district. These will govern what sort of alterations can be made to buildings. Fillmore says that this is a big change: “highly detailed, fully illustrated design guidelines are now in effect for all development within districts. Before HRMbyDesign there was little if any meaningful guidance on appropriate design responses in heritage contexts.”

There will also be regulations surrounding the demolition of buildings within the district. For example, in the Barrington Plan it sates that “HRM shall make every effort to seek the retention, preservation, rehabilitation and restoration of buildings, streetscapes, features, spaces and areas with heritage value.”

Basically, if you’re want to rip down a registered heritage building, you’re going to need a really good reason. To get approval for demolition you’ll need to provide a rationale that not only explains your reasons for wanting to demolish the building, but also addresses any alternatives to demolition that may be available.

It’s even hard to demolish non-registered properties within the heritage district. If you want to tear one of these down you still need to get approval from Council. If approval is denied you have to wait for a year before there’s even a chance of taking it down. HRM will use that year as an opportunity to negotiate with property owners to see if they can agree on some alternative to demolition.

HRM has also created a number of financial incentives for property owners in the districts. Most of these are aimed at getting owners to fix up their buildings, as the district is in need of some serious attention. According to the Barrington Plan, about half of the buildings in the district will need improved storefronts and signs, because “a better esthetic condition is vitally important for the image of the district and the success of the revitalization plan.” Many buildings will also need repairs and restorations to their overall facades. The plan goes on to say that some buildings on the street are in need of significant improvements to satisfy the building code.

All these improvements sound like they could cost a lot of money, and  I’m sure the collective mouths of the city’s construction community are drooling over the prospect. The problem is that it could be quite  a cost to bear for property owners.

The city is trying to lighten the load by offering 50% cost sharing on the first $200,000 of any project and additional cost sharing through tax credits. “Prior to HRMbyDesign, grants were limited to only $10,000 per building, and only for registered buildings. There were no tax rebates or other incentives,” says Fillmore. He also emphasizes that these incentives are available to all properties within the district, not just those with heritage status.

The city estimates that  these incentives will cost somewhere between $14-18 million over the next five to ten years. In case you’re wondering, that works out to about $45 for each of HRM’s 395,000 residents.

As for heritage properties outside of the conservation districts, they’re still protected in a variety of ways. For example, owners can also apply for heritage grants to help with the costs of restoration or renovation of heritage properties. There’s also a Heritage and Culture Reserve which can be used to fund “improvements to HRM-owned Heritage properties, public monuments, public art, etc.”

In addition to that, the Downtown Plan is encouraging the province of Nova Scotia to amend the Heritage Property Act so that its harder to demolish heritage properties. HRM is also requiring that developments that are part of or beside a registered heritage property will have to conform to specific design guidelines set out in the HRM Design Manual.

All in all, it seems like HRMbyDesign will offer Halifax’s heritage properties some much needed protection. The plan has had it’s fair share of opposition from groups like Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, but the City maintains that the majority of Haligonians support the plan. In the next installment, we’ll take a closer look at the downtown plan as a whole.

Photo by Lawrence Plug