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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

High-rise confusion on Barrington

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HALIFAX – Last week HRM Council appeared to approve two high-rise developments on Barrington Street – a 17 storey building on the site of the Roy Building and a 20 storey tower to be built on top of the Discovery Centre. Sound familiar? Confusingly, Council seems to have approved the same two towers in April of 2009. Adding to the confusion, both towers are within the Barrington Street Heritage Conservation District, and appear to violate the new downtown plan approved through HRMbyDesign. What exactly is happening with these two proposals?

First, neither project has been granted final approval. Although the Roy Centre project was announced in the summer of 2008, and the Discovery Centre proposal submitted in February 2009, Council has to date only decided what rules the projects will be reviewed under.

In March 2009 Council voted to review these projects under the existing Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) instead of the new downtown plan, which was still being developed through HRMbyDesign. Both proposals are taller than the height limits for Barrington Street that were ultimately set by HRMbyDesign. Consequently, Council felt it would be unfair to review (and ultimately reject) these developments based on the HRMbyDesign standards, which had not been finalized when the tower applications were submitted to the Municipality. The Council vote, which happened last week, was needed to amend the Heritage By-law — a step that was missed in 2009.

The long process, multiple votes and the details of the development control process surely confused many people. So what happens next? Well, both proposals will proceed through the development agreement process. While both the Heritage Advisory Committee and the peninsular Planning Advisory Committee discussed the Roy Building proposal in November 2009, neither committee has yet considered the Discovery Centre project. Ultimately Council will hold public hearings for both projects, before voting to approve or deny them. This is the same long, contentious process that all downtown developments went through before HRMbyDesign changed the rules and the process.

If approved, the two projects will move Barrington Street in a very different direction than the vision presented by HRMbyDesign. Although these two proposals will likely spark many conflicts that HRMbyDesign was supposed to resolve, the most immediate question is this: are these projects good for our downtown?  The answer to that question depends on your vision for downtown. Unfortunately there are still many competing visions, and that conflict will only intensify as these proposals move forward.

photo by Tom Flemming



  1. The Roy Building is a unique place to work in the downtown core. There are a variety of occupants actively working in the space – NGOs, small businesses, psychologists, a language school, film production companies and artist studios.  The space functions!  It is filled with tenants!  Interesting ones!  It has character!  It’s affordable!  And what’s Halifax going to do about?  Tear the sucker down.  Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising.  What a shame.

  2. If downtown Halifax is going to move forward it has to be done right. Intensification and the addition of new buildings does not have to ruin the character of Barrrington or any other street if done well. Respect context, create a pedestrian scale base relative to adjacent buildings, reflect the articulation, but don’t try to be nostalgic (the bane of my existence). Alas, resistance and fear is well warranted for most new buildings in Halifax are absolutely awful.