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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Façadism – Halifax’s dirty dance with its heritage

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HALIFAX – Who says Halifax is anti-development? For that matter, who says downtown is dead? Looking around the city core right now (if we can ignore the pit of continual frustration that has come to symbolize the Tex Park/Twisted Sisters/Skye Halifax site) there are loads of exciting projects on the go. But taking a closer look at many of them, a not-so-exciting trend emerges. A lot of the projects, while ostensibly involving a fine balance of development and heritage preservation, are really just demolitions in everything but name.

I know—a lot of people don’t want to hear more talk about heritage. They want development, progress, etc. Well, so do I. But, maybe naively, I was under the impression that the city was getting both. Instead, the city’s preferred means of preservation is now the mutually unsatisfying compromise known as façadism.

First, the good: an excellent  example of how preserving the “bones” of a building while restructuring it can be a boon for heritage and for development is the Barrington Espace renovation project, a sympathetic example of adaptive reuse. But most façadism is a lot less successful, and with the strategy quickly becoming the preferred means of “preservation,” heritage advocates might start trying to convince developers that preserving entire structures isn’t just a nice thing to do—it can can actually make them a lot of money.

A textbook case study is Denver’s wildly successful lower downtown historic district, a 23-block span of warehouse buildings that makes the Historic Properties look a bit pitiful by comparison. In the ’80s, it was a neglected neighbourhood plagued by poverty and vacant buildings, ripe for demolition. Property owners didn’t much like the idea of turning it into a historic district and restricting demolition, but in the end, the designation—which preserved an attractive, old-school urban streetscape of the sort that now boast the highest real-estate values on the continent—was a key element in the city’s downtown revitalization. And it made a lot of people a lot richer. (Since 1981,according to the piece,  heritage preservation in the state of Colorado has also created 35,000 jobs.)

With that in mind, here’s a quick run-down of some of the worst planned or under-construction façadectomies in Halifax. And for each, a hypothetical, possibly fanciful, but at least plausible heritage-preserving alternative solution, inspired by real-world examples.

1. RBC Tower expansion (Royal Centre)

Unveiled at the 2010 VivaCity conference, this was conceived as a sort of second phase of the TD Tower expansion. It would see a bulked up RBC tower swallow the Champlain and Merrill Lynch buildings, stapling their remains to a sheer wall of glass. The early renderings found online (click here to view) reveal terrible massing and an awful relationship to adjoining streets. And of course, it would eliminate two functional, attractive, urban-scaled structures from the city’s already diminished historical stock.

What if?

Given the current high vacancy rate for Class-A office space, this might end up dying on the books. But if it proceeds, the best strategy could be to meet the developer halfway with a density-bonusing scheme. The tower expansion could go up rather than out, gaining a few extra storeys to increase its square footage. In exchange, the existing buildings would be fully preserved. This may involve an exception to HRM by Design’s height restrictions—but the trade-off would be worth it.

2. Roy Building

The already-approved demolition will see the Roy Building knocked down (along with two smaller buildings on the corner of Sackville and Granville) and an ersatz reproduction built as the podium for a tower. Barrington Street will lose its most massive 19th-century frontage, as well as a perfectly contextualized building. What we’ll get, is, well, who knows? These renderings don’t give much sense of what a reconstructed Roy would really look like.

What if?

Five St. Joseph is a downtown development in Toronto, in which the developer is taking advantage of an especially deep block to build a 48-storey condo tower fronting Yonge Street, while preserving (in their entirety) a row of three-storey Victorians currently on the site. (A warehouse in the rear will be gutted to accommodate the tower.) A great example of development as city-building, the project has created a lot of goodwill for the developer.

While the Roy Building is located on a slightly shallower block, it’s still a huge structure—almost split into two buildings, one fronting Barrington, and another fronting Granville Street. It’s not a perfect solution, but a preservation of the Barrington-facing portion could allow a slender tower to be constructed where the Granville-facing portion currently sits. It would be vastly superior to a facadectomy, or worse, the proposal the city is currently faced with.

3. Waterside Centre

Armour Group, after a lot of wrangling over the heritage elements, ended up gutting most of the block at the northeast corner of Duke and Hollis to accommodate a nine-storey office building. It’ll probably look okay. But considering the potential, and the location adjacent to the Historic Properties, it’s not nearly good enough.

For a hypothetical example of what might have been done, we can look to Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel. (Not to laud Toronto too much—I only return to its example because I’m familiar with it. It would be very easy to supply a list of  heritage tragedies in that city as well.)

This film provides a brilliant overview of the long, painful restoration of the once-grand Gladtsone, which spent the last half of the 20th century as a dismal flophouse. It was in such disrepair that one company—which specialized in heritage restoration—gave up on it. Today, it’s the cornerstone of a revitalized and rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, due in no small part to its heritage cachet. The surrounding area has since become a veritable candyland of new condos and pricey, profitable real-estate.

What if?

Could a Gladstone-esque solution, with a boutique hotel or premium retail, have worked here, adjacent to a heavily-touristed, high-traffic heritage district? That’s a leading question, but it’s worth asking. Waterside could, conceivably, have been built on one of downtown’s nearby fallow or underused blocks. Of course Armour Group doesn’t own those lots. Again, it’s worth asking why it was more economical, in their view, to acquire and gut usable buildings, even with so much underperforming real estate in the vicinity.

Where do we go from here?

It’s the city’s job, in many cases, to provide incentives for developers to take these costlier but superior routes—tax exemptions, grants, density bonusing, etc.

And it’s the job of heritage advocates to convince developers to go this route. Because, as of 2012, the most successful neighbourhoods in North America, boasting the highest property values, tend to be heritage areas. People want to be around them, they want to work in them, and they want to live in them.

And because façadism isn’t preservation. It’s a last-ditch, better-than-nothing quasi-solution. Halifax has already lost way too much to lose much more — and Halifax can do a lot better.

Photos by Kevin Brinepbaladad, Lydon Lynch Architects, Starfish Properties, and @tbpHFX.



  1. HRM by Design was meant to end the heritage vs. development debate once and for all – or at least move it to a more refined one, than simply about height. Recognizing that, unlike most cities, the CBD and the heritage stock are in the same area, a unique solution was required (unless we ridiculously built a new downtown somewhere else…..Dartmouth Crossing?). The new plan does allow for facadism, but in a limited scale. And scale seems to be a key issue here. Granville Mall offers an example of pure heritage preservation on one side, and facadism on the other. Yet both seem to work well, because the ‘modern’ part on the facadist side does not overshadow the historic walls.

    In order to preserve heritage buildings in their entirety, large public subsidies are often required. I wish we had that in Halifax, but funds for this sort of thing are limited. In lieu of that, sensible height controls, design controls for facadism, and heritage conservation districts (there is 1 now and meant to be 3 in time) were seen as the answer.

    Interestingly, of the examples cited by the author as being egregious, only one of them was actually approved under HRM by Design (TD Tower). Waterside was approved beforehand, and the Roy building was grandfathered under the previous rules. The ESpace property is a perfect example of what is envisioned as bringing heritage buildings back to life under the Barrington Heritage Conservation District.

  2. Another area that went through similar revitalisation is the Third Ward district in Milwaukee, WI. In 1999, it was nothing but an area of abandoned warehouses that looked like they should be demolished (and yet somehow still considered a tourist attraction). Now it is one of, if not the, trendiest areas in Milwaukee, combining residential, hotel and commercial space with comprised of old and new architecture.

  3. Paul, Halifax did and in some ways still does have an opportunity to have a DBD built anew so as to save what little survives of its historic core.

    I refer of course to the Cogswell interchange site where a new convention centre close to the water and with views over the Citadel _could _ have been developed with surrounding new offices of outstanding architectural character. That it was not and only pathetic excuses ever offered why not, is to Halifax’s eternal shame!
    Dr. Iain Taylor, Prof. Urban Studies (retired)