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Halifax library’s views threatened by neighbouring development

Larry Haiven stands at the edge of the Halifax Living Room, a fifth-floor reading space at the city’s new Central Library that overlooks downtown while cantilevering over a north-facing plaza. He leans on his cane and points to Citadel Hill, a few blocks away.

“That’s what you see now,” the Saint Mary’s University industrial relations professor says. “It really gives you a soul-filling feeling. You can see the Garrison there. You see the history.” Then he gestures to the half-razed block across the street, from which a seven-storey, mixed-use building is about to rise. He looks up at the historic hill, home to a British military fort that helped establish the city in 1749, again. Soon, he says, “you might catch a corner up there, but that’s about it.”

Halifax’s skyline has been littered with cranes lately, and the library, which opened in 2014 and just received a Governor-General’s Medal in Architecture, has been a boon for development. But the narrative of the library as a city-building success has created a trickle-down subplot: What happens when developers want to get close?

Westwood Developments Ltd. bought up the block to the north of the library a decade ago, and now wants to take advantage of the hype the library has built along the Spring Garden commercial corridor. Dr. Haiven and his compatriots argue the building, dubbed the Doyle Development, will damage the value of a beloved public view, and they want the building lowered. But doing so could mean breaking from Halifax’s municipal planning strategy, creating a precedent for developers to fight the plan in the future and unhinging the city’s plan for reasonable, context-specific growth.

“That would potentially unbalance the very, very tentative and fragile ceasefire we have in downtown around development fights,” says local municipal councillor Waye Mason.

The 'before' view. This is what visitors to the new Halifax library used to see from the fifth-floor reading space.
Here is a look at what architecture professor Steve Parcell says will be the view after the Doyle Development is built.

The Halifax Regional Municipality introduced the “HRMbyDesign” municipal planning strategy in 2008 – well before the library was built – and with it, maximum height allowances for various blocks in the city’s core. This helps the city avoid constant zoning battles. The Doyle Development’s allotment allows developers to build up to 28 metres high – about 8 1/2 storeys, depending on floor heights.

Danny Chedrawe, Westwood’s president, is happy to point out that he could very well have planned a higher building, but settled on seven storeys. “There’s nothing in the planning rules that says we had to,” he says.

Mr. Chedrawe and his company bought the block bordered by Spring Garden Road, Queen Street, Doyle Street and Brunswick Street about 10 years ago and sat on it. They originally planned an 80-per-cent residential building for the site. Now, the building is slated to have a 40-suite boutique hotel, 60-suite high-end residence, ground floor retail featuring a glass-rotunda corner cafe, and a 150-seat rooftop restaurant.

Westwood plans to widen sidewalks, increase lighting and create a pedestrian experience not unlike Yorkville in Toronto in order to entice the growing number of people walking through the neighbourhood. “The game changer,” Mr. Chedrawe says, “was the library.”

Dr. Haiven loves what the library’s done to the neighbourhood, too. But he doesn’t want what the public has gained from it – at a cost of $60-million – to be devalued by a hungry developer. “It’s here to provide us with a wonderful view,” he says. “All citizens can come up here and just appreciate the city.”

He’s part of a heritage group from the neighbourhood to the southwest called Friends of Schmidtville, which has loosely banded together with other community organizations to build public opposition to the Doyle Development. According to Westwood’s renderings of the site, the peak of Citadel Hill will be visible, plus a chunk of the hill visible down Queen Street. “We’re protecting 90 per cent of the view of Citadel Hill,” Mr. Chedrawe says.

But those renderings still unquestionably obscure much of the eastern half of the national historic site. And Stephen Parcell, an architecture professor and imaging expert who works next door to the library at Dalhousie University, has drawn up renderings of his own, which suggest the building could obscure even more of the hill.

No matter whose drawings of the Doyle Development one looks at, Dr. Haiven believes, the view will be compromised.

“The problem in this city is that every new development is looked at without context,” the professor says. “You consider only the development itself, and not what’s around it. ... It’s compartmentalized thinking.”

Dr. Haiven hopes to persuade the city to lower the proposed development. “If anything’s winnable, this is,” he says.

But Mr. Mason, the municipal councillor, points out that was the height already allotted to the site in the city’s planning strategy. He has high doubts the city will budge. To let anyone bypass the strategy may open up a precedent for developers to try to bypass planning standards in the future, potentially leading to towers too tall, or simply too uncharacteristic, for the neighbourhoods they’re proposed for.

“It’d be about opening up the plan and giving everybody height and bigger buildings,” Mr. Mason says. (It being a small world, this is an awkward situation for the councillor, who is on the cusp of finishing a part-time MBA; Dr. Haiven is his thesis adviser.)

Christopher De Sousa, chair of Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning in Toronto, says this is a common planning challenge. “Once a city would intervene and say, ‘Even though it’s allowed, we think that’s too tall – go lower,’ then it does set a precedent for everything around it,” he says. If the city’s hand is forced to bypass the planning strategy, “then it’ll happen everywhere.”

But Dr. De Sousa also gives credit to Dr. Haiven and his fellow Doyle opponents, too. “If this is a priority for the city, then if [the city] did a proper viewshed analysis, that might have preserved the view. ... Once it’s blocked, it’ll be blocked.”

The Doyle block is completely razed now. Westwood plans to have the building open for business by the summer of 2018. Unless someone convinces the city to bypass best practices and lower it soon, the view Dr. Haiven cherishes will be diminished. As it’s planned, he says, “you play peek-a-boo, at best.”

Drawing different conclusions

It’s hard to tell exactly how much something theoretical will block a real building’s view, but experts will happily try.

Westwood Developments had the Doyle Development’s architects, Kassner Goodspeed Architects Ltd., draw up their own version of the view from the Halifax Central Library’s fifth floor. It blocks some, but not a great deal, of the view of Citadel Hill.

Steve Parcell gave drawings a shot, too. Not only is he willing to essay at length debunking the follies of others’ architectural drawings, he’s a professor of architecture at Dalhousie University who specializes in how architecture is engaged, perceived and interpreted.

He has made his own independent photo montages of how the Doyle Development might change the library’s view, offering detailed descriptions of how he did his measurements to anyone who’ll ask. Since offering them up to the public in January, Westwood has been defensive.

In an interview, Westwood president Danny Chedrawe dismissed Dr. Parcell’s photomontages as misinformation spread on social media – though they were published in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald – arguing that “it wasn’t factually done.”

In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Dr. Parcell fired back, pointing out that he used a significant amount of publicly available data in good faith. “These images alerted the public, the developer, and city hall to an impending collision between a private development and the public good,” he wrote. “It wasn’t surprising that the developer responded by using the local media to defend his investment with more rhetoric than fact.”

As much as math is crucial to renderings, sometimes perspective is perspective until you see something set in stone.

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