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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The convention centre chronicles: the $100 million question

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HALIFAX – It has been close to three weeks since Infrastructure Minister Bill Estabrooks hinted that the Province’s decision on whether to support the convention centre proposed for downtown Halifax would soon be made public. The development, proposed for the old Chronicle Herald building site, has received guff from heritage and development types alike while proponents tout the proposal as that “boost” Halifax perpetually awaits. turning it into a broader debate around Halifax’s development agenda and the city’s tenuous creative, economic, and environmental vitality. However, while the debate grows and criticism mounts, very little space has been made to discuss real alternatives to the convention centre proposal.

A range of estimates on the public cost and benefit of the convention centre have been thrown around, and many thrown out. The only number that has maintained some consistency is a total cost of $300 million — a minimum $100 million chunk of which would come from taxpayers, and the rest directly from private developer, Rank, Inc.

Chatting with The Hub‘s Joanne Macrae last week, we recounted the number conversations in which we’ve heard the ‘at least it’s something‘ argument made in favour of the convention centre. Is the bar in Halifax set so low, that we’re ready to throw $100 million behind a proposal based solely on its thing-ness? On a lack of better ideas?

But there’s more to the at least it’s something’ mantra. Fundamentally, the intent behind the convention centre and the arguments made for it are hard to disagree with. Yes, by many counts, Halifax’s downtown is dwindling, and something does need to happen to give it a shove in the right direction. Just what that thing should be is where our creativity seems to fail us.

With that in mind, what are some hypothetical alternatives that might fill this geographic, social, and economic void? In other words…

If you were handed $100 million, and the responsibility to invest it in a new downtown project, what would you do?  Your only criteria: the investment must promise a) some kind of positive impact on the city, and b) a viable level of projected economic return or sustainability.



  1. What a great question. 

    What would I do?

    I would start to build a new downtown. Let the usual suspects fight over that ridiculous hill where the downtown sits. Instead lets invest in “level ground” – Agricola and North, Gottingen, Quinpool for starters. So much vacant land along these streets, and much of it owned by the city. Let the city give the land away, require a minimum 1/3rd non-market housing in any residential development (free or heavily discounted land will more than compensate developers for this requirement). Identify some strategic sites along the way to reconnect the city – tactical interventions that activate the surrounding fabric. A “test” tram line with high-density requirements can be used to further entice new investment into the “north end” – which is really more like central Halifax – or the new CITY CENTRE. Maintaining the small parcel sizes along streets like Agricola and Gottingen can go a long way in creating some fantastic urban streetscapes with high intensity of use, program and vibrancy. 

    Just some thoughts. Great question Emma. We need more positive approaches to discussions like this in Halifax and avoid the all-to-common adversarial debate that is only about what can’t be done. 

  2. Well done Emma…the Coalition to Save the View has developed a paper on this issue and here is a condensed version of our ideas….none of which will cost nearly $100 million. Clean it up and keep it clean, revive and invest in the design principles that were supposed to be part of the Capital District plan, actively support the arts community downtown, make staff develop and enforce best practices for things like wind, shadow, and building height vs. street width, institute off hours loading…get the trucks off the sidewalks they are for pedestrians, regulate demolitions and the spaces that are left…require approved building permits before demolition is permitted and require landscaping and maintenance on any lot vacant over 6 months, remove the extra heights allowed by HRMxDesign which encourage property speculation, change the tax structure which makes it more attractive to own a vacant or parking lot than to maintain a building, CHANGE THE COMMERCIAL TAX STRUCTURE that subsidizes suburban commercial spaces on the backs of downtown properties, and invest whatever percentage of the $100 million (actually more like $140 million according to the consultants) , it takes to build affordable housing downtown; you don’t build vibrant urban neighbourhoods with $500,000 condos 20 stories above the ground. Also note, that the whole convention centre part of the proposed comples is underground and since it is proposed that it will be attached to a large hotel, restaurants, bars and shops…there will be no need for delegates to ever even see downtown let alone leave the building. Thanks for ‘listening’.

  3. Well, I support the convention centre, and it’s not like there is $100-140 million sitting around from the 3 levels to just invest in whatever we want. But it’s still a good exercise to think about what else we need to do, because the convention centre is not the only great idea. Downtown infrastructure has been sorely neglected for 30+ years. To just fix up Barrington, Spring Garden and Quinpool would cost $24 million. Creating a wonderful streetscape on Argyle with permanent cafe infrastructure is probably another $4. Why is that a good idea? Well, as any mall manager knows, you can’t have a tired environment for your premiere retail. More attractive streetscapes should help boost attraction, and therefore sales, and this all boosts city taxes. That’s the great thing about reinvesting in downtown – – it tends to provide more bang for your buck than anywhere else.
    We also need a stronger heritage incentive program – we are maxing out the one on Barrington. Again, that investment will pay for itself many times over, over time. Government has a part to play in affordable housing – there should be a general effort to repopulate the peninsula, but attracting more residents also requires some investments in recreational facilities (ie, Centennial Pool), parks, schools. The public facilities on the peninsula should be the BEST ones. Why? Again, with strong facilities you attract residents to an area that already has significant investment (transit, sewer, fire, police, etc). With more residents on the peninsula, you would save money on things such as widening roads. For less than $200k we could provide free internet downtown (like Fredricton, Saint Johns and Moncton) – wouldn’t that make us seem like a “smart city”? A vibrant urban environment is what young people say they want, so we should do our best to provide that, so that young Nova Scotians are paying their taxes here, rather than in Alberta. Bike trails that connect would be welcomed as well. The bottom line is that the downtown is the economic heartbeat of this city. If we are to survive and thrive, we need to invest here. Sorry to say that $100 million is but a drop in the bucket of things we need to do, but it is certainly a start.

  4. Just one brief thing to add to the Coalition to Save the View’s excellent list: I’m not sure how to go about this, but I don’t think anything will save Barrington Street as long as it appears to function primarily as a long, narrow, linear bus mall. It is noisy, smelly, crowded (in a bad sort of way, with people standing around waiting for their bus). A transit solution that allows it to again become Halifax’s main commercial street needs some thought.

  5. What I’d love to see is a scaling down of the Convention Centre project and spread the funding around to several smaller infill catalyst projects throughout the downtown.

    Halifax, like many other smaller cities, has found it self in this position before (Scotia Square, Park Lane, Maritime Centre). They all work for a bit but when the energy fizzles, we’re left with a behemoth that is difficult to adapt to other tenants and uses. 

    Smaller mixed-use infill that is context sensitive with architecture of its time. This is what downtown needs. Stop the scary big projects. This is why Halifax rejects and responds so negatively to contemporary design. Stop the nostalgia. A six-story stucco building with Victorian nods does not make it work any better.

    Public realm improvements can stimulate private investment but they should be strategic. A whole-scale redo of Barrington will not do it alone. A simple, easy to implement and maintain design of robust materials will be of far better value than a fussy, nostalgic expensive to maintain street any day. I’d love to see a streetscape master plan that identifies the major streets and carries a consistent character throughout the peninsula. It need not be expensive, just thoughtful. Underground the overhead utilities and plant trees. Use granite for curbs on main streets like in Quebec City where they use it everywhere. Invest in the urban forest and high-quality street lighting.

    What the downtown needs is a refined vision for the future that respects the past and builds upon it. This can be done without thinking thats the best it will ever be. European cities consistently introduce the new with the old. They embrace fresh thinking that enhance the quality and character of their heritage structures and spaces. HRM by Design is a step in that direction. What downtown needs now is implementation.


  6. First things first, we start a Municipal Secretariat for Shawarma Quality Control. Better shawarmas downtown = more people, and more happier people, downtown.

    Other than that, ditto with Paul. Spread the money out.

  7. Houari, I agree and I think the gold standard of shwarma should be Tarek’s. Hands down.

  8. What would I do?

    First of all, this 300 million dollars should NOT be used to build one giant project. The largest projects in downtown Halifax (Scotia Square, Maritime Mall, etc.) are also the most hideous anti-urban features.

    What makes (made) downtown Halifax livable was the human scale, and access to the water. So I would propose to use this money to build many smaller projects that don’t rise more than six stories.

    Likewise, this money would go further if it is used to invest in new businesses in the downtown (Canadian Tire, Sobeys, Walmart) that could be altered in their concepts to suit a non-automobile environment.

    All surface parking lots need to be the target of residential buildings. All commercial buildings should be required to contain at least two stories of residential above their commercial ground floor.

    High density, low-rise coop housing (self managed condos) should be the preferred financial format, with other formats to bring many income levels/family sizes to the center.

    The presence of cars must be reduced by at least half, and large trucks completely re-routed to avoid mixed-use neighborhoods in the center.

  9. Build a convention centre using the Cunard location on the south-end waterfront. Build a commuter rail line into the city to ease traffic congestion. Then build a streetcar/tram going down Hollis Street right to Purdy’s Wharf to take commuters and convention-goers to their destinations.

    This would be a much wiser use of funds that we don’t have instead of an underground bunker.