HRMbyDesign Part II: Revitalising downtown

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.

HALIFAX – One of the central objectives to HRMbyDesign is the revitalization of the downtown core. The hope is that the new, more clearly defined zoning and design rules will create a climate that is hospitable to developers and retailers, while encouraging Haligionians to both live and work in the downtown core.

In the opinion of one of the leaders of Halifax’s business community, HRMbyDesign lays a lot of the ground work necessary to reach these goals.

Paul Mackinnon is the executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. He says the biggest advantage of HRMbyDesign is clarity: “We’ve been lobbying council to come up with a new downtown plan for years, because for he past 30 years it was a mixed plan strategy…that document was very vague and sometimes even contradictory about how you could develop downtown.”

The old rules really held back potential development project. “We’ve had examples of a developer who thinks he’s proposing something within the rules actually having to wait three years to get approval,” says Mackinnon. The new planning rules under HRMbyDesign are by contrast much simpler. “The greatest change in terms of zoning is the complete removal of the previous complicated mosaic of land use zones, and its replacement with two simple zones: DH-1 (downtown mixed use), and ICO (institutional, cultural and open space),” says Andy Fillmore, urban design project manager with the Capital District.

The clarity of this new system is appealing to developers. “It’s no longer going to be a 3 year process, now it’s going to be a 60 day process, and that includes the appeals,” says Mackinnon.

Prior to HRMbyDesign, initial approval of a project was granted by City Council. Now, when a developer wants to get a project approved, he submits it to a non-elected staff member who makes sure the project complies with the rules set out in the design manual.

After a project gets initial approval, it then gets looked over by a design review committee, composed by nine volunteers, from fields such architecture, urban development and engineering. Once the review committee makes their decision both the developer and the public have the opportunity to make an appeal. That appeal will go to city council, who will make the final decision.

That’s the whole process in a nutshell.

Fillmore is very proud of this new process: “HRM has never had design guidelines, and the cumulative effect of this lack of design quality if apparent everywhere. Blank walls, cheap materials and unattractive architecture all add up to an environment that’s not likely to inspire residents to take pride in their city or to invest in it…For the first time, the primary focus will be on design and not on the banal matter of separation of land uses,” says Fillmore.

For the most part Mackinnon feels the plan is good for developers and development. “What the developers got was predictability and clarity and cost certainty,” says Mackinnon. He also feels that the new rules won’t just benefit developers but property owners as well; “somebody that has a property downtown they have a big parking lot beside them they will now know what can be build beside them…so they can invest appropriately,” says Mackinnon.

Fillmore thinks that the Downtown Plan is going to contribute a lot to the revitalization of the downtown core. He says one of the best innovations of the new zoning rules is that instead of encouraging single use development, it encourages mixed use. He says that with the new mixed zoning rules we’re going to see big changes. Instead of large office buildings that go unused for a considerable portion of the day, Fillmore says the new rules will allow for “active retail, restaurant and commercial uses along all sidewalk frontages… office space on the floor immediately above, and the ability to build residential uses on top of that.”

The new city guidelines seem to offer a lot of potential for a revitalized downtown, but will improved these improved regulations get the job done on their own?

On this subject Fillmore and Mackinnon see things slightly differently. Fillmore believes that the new rules and regulations of the Downtown Plan are going to be the catalyst for real change in the city’s downtown. As for Mackinnon, he thinks that the improved clarity of HRMbyDesign is a great step forward for the city, but he also emphasizes that HRMbyDesign should be seen as a starting point. “The plan is kind of the beginning, we’ve basically ignored the downtown…certainly for the last 13 years…This plan says that the downtown is important (but) other things need to be done.”

One specific area that Mackinnon sees a need for greater city involvement is in encouraging people to live downtown. “A big part of what HRMbyDesign talks about is bringing residents back to the peninsula…The single best way to revitalize the downtown is to bring more people to live closer to downtown…and there’s room to do that.” Mackinnon says that 40 years ago, there were 30,000 more people living on the peninsula, so we should be able to get back to that level. The problem, from Mackinnon’s perspective, is that while HRMbyDesign talks a lot about increasing residential development in the city, “there’s nothing really proactive in it” towards those ends. Mackinnon thinks that things like tax incentives for developers and the restriction of suburban development are a few good ways to encourage development in the city center.

“If you look at successful cities, if you think about Vancouver…they’ve had a huge increase in their residential population in their downtown core…As a result they’re not building new bridges or widening their roads, they’re not having the congestion problems that we have…It’s not like that just happens; that speaks to thirty years of planning policies that encouraged development policies in the downtown core.”

So all in all, HRMbyDesign’s plan to revitalize the downtown core seems to be getting a positive response from the business community, but—as Mackinnon says—it’s important to see the plan as a starting point, not a conclusion.

Photo By Lawrence Plug