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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Darkside Rising – The future of Downtown Dartmouth

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DARTMOUTH – Over the last few years, Downtown Dartmouth has emerged as one of the Halifax region’s up and coming neighbourhoods. A slow but steady urban renaissance has fostered a growing sense of optimism and community pride, and created a palpable buzz in and around the heart of Dartmouth. The renaissance has been led by a number of successful downtown businesses and buoyed by community projects, such as the community oven on the Dartmouth common, and Tulipmania. Long referred to pejoratively as “the darkside”, residents have reclaimed that nickname, and made it a badge of Dartmouth pride. This sense of vibrancy has led some commentators to describe Dartmouth as “Halifax’s Brooklyn” and downtown Dartmouth was recently named one of Canada’s next great neighbourhoods by EnRoute magazine.

Dartmouth has also seen a series of new developments including King’s Wharf and the Greenvale School redevelopment, with more projects proposed for Irishtown Road, Wyse Road, Octherloney Street and Dartmouth Cove.

At the same time, downtown Dartmouth continues to face a number of challenges. The population of the Dartmouth Centre district has actually fallen by 9% in the last 10 years. And while many new businesses have done well, Portland street still has a great deal of vacant and underutilized commercial space. Recent cuts to Metro Transit’s harbour ferry service have underlined the vulnerability of the community’s renewal. This all raises important questions about the future of downtown Dartmouth.

Despite a widespread desire to revitalize downtown, new developments have not been without controversy. A proposed development on Irishtown road has met with some resistance from nearby residents, in particular over the proposed height and design. Some complain that the 18, 14 and 7 story towers are inconsistent with the “small-town” feel of the area. The project sits at the intersection of downtown with the nearby residential neighbourhoods, and its environs include include a 14 story apartment building, 100 year old houses, relatively new condo complexes, and a few recently condemned apartment blocks. Others have complained that one bedroom apartments are simply “inappropriate” for the area.

Similarly, the possibility of a 24 story apartment building on Wyse Road close to the MacDonald Bridge has met with mixed reviews. While there is no actual development proposed at the moment, present zoning would allow for such a project. Critics have again suggested it does not fit the neighbourhood, which includes a 17 story office tower, a strip mall, and the Dartmouth Sportsplex.

These proposed developments raise critical questions about where the downtown itself begins and ends, and what kind of developments should take place where. Both point to a need on the part of the municipality and developers to engage with the community at an earlier stage of the project,

One project which is already changing the face of downtown Dartmouth is King’s Wharf. A $300 million project, King’s Wharf will consist of multiple buildings with both residential and commercial use and a mix of condos and rental properties. Once completed, it will be capped with a 33 story tower and be home to over 5,000 people.

Some seem to unquestioningly accept the proposition that a development that adds that many people to downtown will automatically revitalize it, while critics have pointed out that King’s Wharf is separated from the rest of downtown by a forbidding stretch of Alderney Drive, and suggested it is just as likely that residents will get in their cars and drive elsewhere to do their shopping.

In reality, neither result is inevitable. Ensuring that King’s Wharf is properly integrated with the rest of downtown Dartmouth will take an actual conscious effort on the part of the HRM. Pedestrian access to the rest of the Dartmouth waterfront needs to be improved, and the HRM should be looking at ways to ensure proper pedestrian access across Alderney Drive to the rest of Downtown. An overpass would be one option, but there are certainly others. The point is, the municipality needs to be engaging with the developer about how best to achieve this integration in a way that ensures that a successful development at King’s Wharf means success for all of downtown Dartmouth.

With that in mind, one episode which does not bode well for this kind of collaboration is the HRM’s recent cuts to the ferry service, which were adopted by council in August. Critics have pointed out that the cuts are inconsistent with the regional plan, which calls for greater density in the downtown cores, and better public transit options. In addition, the cuts did not seem to take into account some of the changing circumstances of downtown, including the addition of King’s Wharf.

To date, the developer of King’s Wharf, Frances Fares, has given mixed signals on his intentions with respect to ferry service. He has at various times floated the idea of a water taxi and a private ferry service. However, it would seem that, at least in the short-term, Mr. Fares is committed to supporting the public ferry service. He expressed surprise that no-one at HRM spoke to him prior to proposing the ferry cuts, and at one point even offered to front the $250,000 necessary to maintain ferry service at current levels. When I spoke to him recently, Mr. Fares confirmed that after publicly making the offer to help fund the ferry, not one person from HRM contacted him to follow up.

This is a huge lost opportunity for the municipality. It is obvious few things would be better for the ferry service than ensuring that as many King’s Wharf residents as possible become regular users. Working together with the developer of King’s Wharf would seem to be a logical way to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of the ferry service. While a private donation may not be an appropriate substitute for a properly funded ferry service, there are other options the municipality and developer could explore, including having the developer purchase blocks of passes for residents, at a slight discount in a manner similar to the U-Pass. A successful partnership might avoid the need for King’s Wharf to pursue a private ferry altogether. The key here remains successful engagement by the municipality.

There are many reasons for optimism about downtown Dartmouth’s future. Nonetheless, success is not guaranteed, and much will depend on how the municipality works with developers, and in turn how the municipality and developers work with the community. More residents in downtown Dartmouth could be a boon for local business and the community. However, it needs to be done in a way that maintains and enhances existing amenities, and complements the eclectic vibe that makes downtown an attractive place to be. If we can find a way to strike that balance, then the future is indeed bright on the Darkside.

Images by Bernier PhotographyLydon Lynch and lumierefl



  1. They are lucky to have you,Derek.
    I love your insight ,as usual . Are you able to affect responsible oversight at all ?

  2. Maybe I’m an hopeless optimist, but I really believe the brightest future is one where the “line” between our CBD in Halifax and Downtown Dartmouth is as thin as possible.

    With a big body of water between the two place we need to rely on transportation links as the principle means by which to thin the line and create a strong central community.

    I love the Metro Transit ferry, but I also love the idea of getting more boats on the water. Some of the most effective transportation systems I’ve used have been Intermediate Public Transport (or informal public transport). I would suggest that more people moving more people across the harbour could create a community of waterborne problem solvers ready to apply intrinsically locally ingenuity to some of our most confounding local problems!

  3. Great article! I just had some thoughts on the overpass for crossing Alderney. Every pedestrian overpass or underpass I’ve ever seen has really just highlighted the fact that transportation design is for motor vehicles, and that pedestrian and other forms of active transportation (AT) are consistently the afterthought. 

    I, personally would prefer a well functioning intersection which is designed for all modes. Some suggestions to include active transportation as part of the design consideration:

    – lights timed with shorter intervals so that shivering winter walkers don’t freeze in place

    – space for cyclists and pedestrians to cue up at what coule be an advanced light for AT crossing before motorist turning onto alderney

    – landscaping which doubles as weather protection

    – beautification like material change for AT traffic

  4. I would like to know why the CN trains are blowing horns at all times of the day.This seems to be something new that they started doing and would like to see it stop.I have to be up early for work every day and all they keep doing is waking up people in the middle of the night!