For nearly 40 years, the views of downtown Halifax from the city’s historic Citadel Hill have been held sacred, with Haligonians protecting sweeping vistas of their harbour and the peninsula with a series of strict rules.
But significant change is in the wind. For the first time since the so-called “viewplane” legislation came into effect in 1974, the city is about to amend the law because of the absurd situation in which one Halifax developer has found himself.
Joe Metlege has had to put on hold his $150-million redevelopment project of Fenwick Tower, originally built in 1969. Last month, permits in hand and work about to begin, he discovered the corners on one side of the 12th floor of the 34-storey apartment building would protrude 3.5 feet into the viewplane from Citadel Hill to the harbour.
He alerted the city.
The encroachment, caused by a new glass skin that was to be put on tower’s exterior, is indiscernible to the naked eye from Citadel Hill, which is about a kilometre away. It has been described by Robert Stapells, the former city councillor who helped created the viewplane rules, as the “equivalent of attaching a sewing needle to the building.”
And so on Tuesday, council voted to start the public consultation process to adjust the viewplane boundaries to accommodate the technicality. The process will take at least five months – a delay that will cost Mr. Metlege and his company, Templeton Properties Ltd., about $1-million.
Halifax, like other big Canadian cities, is grappling with how to make its downtown core more vibrant and modern to attract business and people while at the same time protect the city’s character. Part of that character involves iconic views, which cities such as Vancouver (with its North Shore mountains) and Toronto (with its landmark Queen’s Park) have struggled to protect from high-rise condominiums and other new buildings.
Says Toronto’s acting chief planner Gregg Lintern: “It’s more than a luxury … People consider views to be a part of the city’s landscape and part of the city’s image.”
In Halifax, defenders of the city’s historical legacy feel that projects such as Fenwick are a threat to Halifax’s very essence.
“The difficulty is that if council starts entertaining requests to allow viewplanes to be narrowed, it’s a very slippery slope,” says Phil Pacey, the chair of the Halifax Regional Municipality committee of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia.
“We know that there are sketches of people up on Citadel Hill for recreation as early as 1759 … so people have been enjoying the view ... since 1759. That’s 253 years,” says Mr. Pacey. “We don’t want to see the view whittled away by 3.5 feet at a time. It is a non-renewable resource. It is a finite resource and any blockage just takes away from that.”
Mr. Pacey was not pleased by council’s decision to proceed – but Sue Uteck, the councillor for the area, argues that redevelopment of the Fenwick Tower is not an “assault on the viewplane legislation.”
Rather, this is an engineering issue. “Is Tom the Tourist going to be offended that we went into the viewplane by a foot? I don’t think so.”
And Fred Morley, vice-president of the Greater Halifax Partnership, an economic development group in the city, says a plan is merely a guideline. It is not cast in stone.
“We need to interpret these rules with a degree of common sense,” he says, “and recognize there are people out there that don’t want growth of any kind, that want to see some kind of freeze-dried Brigadoon. That’s their vision for Halifax and that’s not reality.”
Reality or not, it is a view that has become entrenched as Halifax, whose identity is very much rooted in its history as a British redoubt. It has a very defined sense of itself and its heritage.
For Mr. Metlege, however, the rules are prohibitive. Just 29 years old, he is of a younger generation of Haligonians, who want their city to be vibrant and world-class.
That isn’t happening, he argues, because of these viewplane restrictions, which he says have taken on an “almost sacred title.”
He believes, they have compromised the “architectural integrity” of the city.
“No wonder you have no architecturally intriguing buildings in Halifax,” he argues, suggesting that is why the downtown core is full of square, squat office buildings.
“I am not advocating getting rid of the viewplanes,” he says. “I am advocating having a conversation about it. … What is the economic impact [of the rules] on the city?”
Councillor Uteck, meanwhile, shakes her head, adding: “Welcome to Halifax, where any building over five storeys is a controversy.”
Three Canadian cities and their battles to protect the views
Anna Mehler Paperny
It’s a very Vancouverite kind of quandary: What do you do when a park full of trees is messing with your view of the mountains?
In 2008, the city took it upon itself to remove about 70 trees in Queen Elizabeth Park, and prune another eight. The park, the city’s highest point, is one of more than 30 “view cones” designated as vistas to be protected. The trees, like any other view-obstructing new development, were not welcome.
Sound crazy? Not here.
“You’re constantly interacting with the skyline,” says assistant planning director Kevin McNaney. “It’s not some abstract thing you see.”
The condo-crazy city has an often conflicted relationship with building in and around its most famous vistas and historic sites. Last year, the Ontario Municipal Board found the city’s existing sightline rules didn’t mean it could restrict a tall development that planners said would obscure sightlines leading to Queen’s Park, Ontario’s legislature. Now the city is making specific sightline rules for Queen’s Park, City Hall and the courthouse at Old City Hall.
“This recent direction … is trying to be a bit more proactive,” said acting chief planner Gregg Lintern. “The downtown area is generally a place where growth is encouraged. So you want to strike that balance.”
For a city built on an island, Montreal doesn’t often give you an intimation of waterfront proximity.
“Often you don’t even have the sense you’re on an island: You don’t see the shore, you don’t see the water,” says Suzanne Corbeil, a municipal lawyer who just won a legal planning victory for the Montreal borough of Pierrefonds-Roxboro. Quebec’s Superior Court found officials acted fairly in enacting height restrictions that effectively blocked the construction of an eight-storey condominium on a riverside cul-de-sac.
Montreal’s urban plan designates protected sightlines of both the waterfront and Mount Royal.
“The city considers that certain views are really part of our patrimonial heritage – our wealth,” Ms. Corbeil said. “So they try to preserve that.”