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Real Estate Flurry of development signals new identity – and challenges – for Halifax

A rendering of the proposed Dexel Development project at Spring Garden Road and Robie Street in Halifax.

City of Halifax

On July 26, two of the world’s biggest, most beautiful cruise ships ran a slow, celebratory lap of the Halifax Harbour. The Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary II lured thousands of Haligonians to piers, patios and rooftops nearby, and put on a remarkable show. But from the coast, you noticed something else: the passengers on board seemed almost as impressed with the view they were getting of Halifax.

It’s no wonder. As Mayor Mike Savage announced in his State of the Municipality Address last year, over the last decade, “a new city has emerged,” one that’s not just appealing to the newlywed, nearly-dead crowd but, at long last, young people.

Development’s been a gradual process, but of late it’s kicked into overdrive. Over seven days this July, Halifax Regional Council approved eight developments collectively housing more than 1,100 residential units – about as many units as council would normally approve in a year.

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The recent approvals include four towers on the same Downtown Halifax block – reaching up as high as 27 storeys – and a pair of eight-storey buildings on the same stretch of Quinpool Road, one of the city’s main arteries.

Tie in recent developments such as The Alexander, The Roy, and The Maple, and Halifax starts to look like a blooming, bustling city – one where Youssef Khattab, a third-year electrical engineering student at Dalhousie University, can see himself living after graduation.

Mr. Khattab, who came over from Cairo two years ago, says that living in Halifax, opposed to Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, makes a lot of financial sense for him and his friends.

“You can make $3,000 a month … if you go to Toronto, but then you have to pay $1,500 per month or more on rent,” Mr. Khattab said. “The best option now seems to be staying in Halifax.”

Mr. Khattab isn’t alone in his thinking; from 2015 to 2018, the city of roughly 420,000, added 22,000 people, and one-third of the population increase from last year was made up of people between the ages of 20 and 29-years-old. That’s a cohort that has historically gone the other way.

Banc Development expects students and young professionals to live in its recently approved eight-storey Wellington Street development.

City of Halifax

For a city long cursed by exodus, it’s unheard of for Halifax to be this popular. And developers are scrambling to ensure there’s room for all of them to stay.

Alex Halef, president of Banc Developments, says students and young professionals will “certainly” live in his recently approved eight-storey development in the city’s South End. Rental prices, Mr. Halef says, will be “stable yet profitable,” starting at “around $1,200” for one-bedrooms and $1,800 for two-bedrooms.

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But Mr. Halef isn’t celebrating just yet; he stressed that the Regional Council’s Centre Plan – a soon-to-be-implemented “master plan” for development in urban Halifax and Dartmouth – must keep pace with the city’s population forecasts. Otherwise, Mr. Halef says, there’ll be “a misalignment, and something will go amiss.”

“There’s a lot of projects that have been approved, which is a good thing, because we’re going to need them,” he said of the recent flurry of approvals made before the Centre Plan takes effect.

“But from a long-term perspective, it’s really difficult to say what’s going to happen. I don’t want to be negative … because I’m in favour of the Centre Plan and it has improved over multiple iterations. But is it the right plan for the population growth and density we’re expecting? I’m skeptical.”

Despite Halifax’s rebounding growth, not everyone in the city is pushing for more development.

When Halifax city planners ran public engagement meetings, Haligonians voiced concerns that the pair of towering Spring Garden Road developments – two towers proposed on the north side by Dexel Developments, and two on the south side by first-time family developers Wendell Thomas and Peter Rouvalis – would be “too big” for the area, and didn’t complement nearby heritage buildings.

Residents have voiced concerns that the proposed towers on Spring Garden Road are 'too big' for the area.

City of Halifax

Halifax’s alternative weekly magazine, The Coast has given voice to some of these concerns, including a column by Halifax resident and graduate student Angela Capobianco.

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Ms. Capobianco argued that Halifax was “sacrificing its character in a futile attempt to rapidly develop,” and that the city was edging closer to becoming a big, noisy city such as Toronto. Similar sentiments were expressed at public hearings.

Lawen Group’s marketing and communications manager Nicole Babineau says Dexel Developments – a division of Lawen Group – said the company has carried out studies on the development’s potential impact on traffic, wind and shade, and has incorporated those concerns into its final model.

Ms. Babineau says the company expects “a pretty mixed demographic” of buyers, with young professionals, graduate students in law, dentistry and medicine, and older folks taking up most of the units.

Tanaka Shumba, who left Zimbabwe in 2016 to study medical sciences at Dalhousie University, may well be among them. Going into her final year of undergraduate studies, Ms. Shumba says Halifax is “starting to become a place for young people,” although it’s not there yet.

Ms. Shumba, as with many other young people, plans on living and working in Halifax after graduation. She says that, right now, the city is “the perfect size: not too big, not too fast. It’s just right.”

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