Size matters in Halifax. But a controversial decision at City Hall to consider the development of twin towers that will soar 48 storeys like sails in the wind and dwarf the historical downtown show that a $25-billion shipbuilding contract may matter more.
Haligonians have had a new spring in their step since the federal government last fall awarded the Irving shipyard a contract to build new vessels for the navy. The boost to the local economy has also become an impetus for more residential space downtown.
But some fear that pressure to respond to an expected influx of new workers will dramatically change the city’s carefully laid plans for its downtown. This is no more apparent than in council’s surprising decision this week to send the proposed $350-million Skye Halifax project to public hearings.
The development would include two sleek 150-metre towers: a hotel and 600 residential units aimed at young first-time owners.
Council’s decision went against the recommendations of city staff, who argued the upper floors of the towers would block the view of the harbour from the Citadel, the 156-year-old British fort that has for so long dominated the city’s skyline and its planning decisions.
A local regulation ensures the views from the Citadel’s ramparts are not obstructed. No building is to be seen from within the fort’s parade square.
Skye Halifax would break that rule because it would exceed 66 metres. Yet it has cleared this first hurdle, flying in the face of height restrictions in a new city design plan, Halifax by Design, that was several years in the making and involved much public input.
“I like the look of it,” says Peter Lund, one of the 14 councillors who supported the project. “It’s bold and refreshing.” He says Halifax needs an “iconic” building like Toronto’s CN Tower.
Irving is getting the shipyard ready to start work on the contract, which is expected to reach its peak of activity in about 10 years. Mr. Lund notes that the downtown needs to be building sooner rather than later.
Paul MacKinnon, the executive director of Downtown Business Commission, agrees. “There’s a sense that we need to provide more and better housing stock on the peninsula,” he says, pointing to concerns that 3,000 new jobs could appear overnight in the shipyard and people coming to Halifax to work on the ships will need accommodations.
He calls the contract a “great opportunity” that has brought “positive energy” to the city.
“It’s going to be a benefit for the city, but the question is how beneficial and what role can the municipal government play?” he says. “We should use the shipbuilding as an opportunity to get our transit working well, to get our development working well so we’re not sending all these new workers out to live in Sackville and Fall River [Halifax suburbs]”
Jennifer Watts is one of six councillors who did not support the development. She is disappointed and stunned that her colleagues simply snubbed their noses at a design plan that clearly stipulated heights of buildings and was meant to bring clarity to a process in Halifax that had been so vague and slow that it stifled development.
She characterizes the shipbuilding contract as a “huge driver” for the city, which hasn’t had a major building project downtown in 20 years, but cautions that the design plan should not be abandoned. “It’s not to panic, and I think that’s why we put planning in place.”
She warns against getting “caught up in what might be seen to be a knee-jerk reaction” to the expected economic boom.
That the city should “respond right away, I think is shortsighted,” she argues. “We need to stand back and really understand what the implications are.”
For Skye Halifax developer Navid Saberi, the implications are obvious – a revitalized core. He calls his design “upbeat and optimistic” for a downtown that he says needs to attract a younger demographic.
Mr. Saberi’s original proposal for that site was a design that dubbed “Twisted Sister” for its unique look.
Several controversies stalled it, and he went back to the drawing board. Skye Halifax has a much smaller footprint, he says, but will have the same density as the previous design. Units will be affordable for younger buyers.
Despite what is expected to be a divisive public hearing process, he’s confident that his plan will prevail. He says he’s always up for a challenge.
In the 1990s, Mr. MacKinnon says there was a view of Halifax as the “little city that was big.” It was host of the G-7 in 1995. It was considered cool. But the downtown lost some of its identity when it was combined with the surrounding areas under amalgamation in the late 1990s.
“I think the ships thing has helped spark a bit of that confidence back and development will happen,” he says.