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Canada Interchange demolition plan gives Halifax renewal rare second chance

The Cogswell Interchange, built in the 1960s to accommodate a planned waterfront freeway that was never built, is seen in Halifax on Friday, April 26, 2013.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It was Halifax's attempt at being Toronto writ small – a $6-million concrete interchange built to link to a major expressway that would hug the harbour as historic waterfront buildings were bulldozed in its wake.

The Cogswell Interchange, a mass of elevated ramps and roads that takes up a large swath of downtown land around the waterfront, was built in 1969 by the same engineers who constructed Toronto's Gardiner Expressway.

But the conceit and ambitions of the city fathers gave way to protests from the public, and the next phase – the Harbour Drive expressway – was abandoned. Some buildings were saved and the Cogswell Interchange became obsolete the minute it was finished, earning the nickname The Road to Nowhere.

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"In those days they were importing Torontonian ideas for everything in Halifax and they thought we wanted to be like the big city," said Halifax architect Graeme Duffus, whose late father, Allan, also a respected architect in the city, unsuccessfully fought the interchange.

So for nearly 50 years, the Cogswell Interchange has stood as sentinel to the northern end of Halifax's downtown, ugly and useless. No one would do anything about it – until now.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage and his executive committee recently approved a plan that would see the interchange torn down and the 6.5-hectare property redeveloped over 13 years. The plan is expected to go to full council later this month and to pass.

As Toronto debates demolishing its crumbling Gardiner Expressway and Vancouver looks to take down part of its elevated highway, Halifax is giving itself a second chance at urban renewal.

"It's not that often that a city gets to basically rebuild 6.5 hectares of its downtown in one fell swoop, to also right a wrong from decades ago," Mr. Savage said.

He called the interchange a "monstrosity" that was built at a time when "it was all about moving cars" from suburbia. The interchange, he said, "sucked the life out of the community" by dividing the north and south parts of the city.

This new plan is not completely set in stone. But Mr. Savage believes it will "reconnect people, and build real communities where people of all different colours, backgrounds and ages and incomes can come together and live well in an urban setting."

The proposal would demolish the interchange, then use 2.4 hectares of the property to rebuild roads, 2.4 hectares for development and 1.6 hectares for green space. There would be transit hubs, bike paths, trails, parks and wider sidewalks. Nearly 80 per cent of the development would be residential and the rest office space.

The city is not revealing the cost, as it does not want to influence how much it could earn from selling the public land to developers. However, Mr. Savage said the project is "net positive," meaning it will make more money than it will cost to take the interchange down.

Although the plan is generating excitement in the city, it is also drawing caution.

For Ahsan Habib, at Dalhousie University's School of Planning, "this is a chance to do real urban renewal for Halifax. This is a chance of a lifetime." But he warns it should be carefully crafted, allowing much input from citizens and more engineering and urban planning expertise.

"We should not go the way the professional citizens dictate … we really need to have a good plan before we make a choice," he said.

Prof. Habib believes the plan should be brave and bold – and right now, it is not. His concept, for example, would be to build a large bus terminal that would provide the focus for all of the mixed-use development around it. "One of the biggest reasons for tearing down these old road infrastructures is moving people to more transit-oriented development," Prof. Habib said.

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Remarkably, Allan Duffus, the architect, proposed a plan not unlike what is going to city council now – a simple multilane road with a "T" intersection leading into the downtown that would have preserved more of the waterfront buildings. Back then, council rejected it.

"I hope I live to see the day when it's gone," Graeme Duffus said about the interchange that "goes nowhere and comes from nowhere."

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