HRM active transportation coordinator Hanita Koblents discusses her redesign of Argyle Street. The students, who live all over the region, had never been on this street before.

Last Friday, May 18th, the Dalhousie School of Planning was thrilled to offer a workshop for African Nova Scotian high school students in partnership with the Black Business Initiative in Halifax. Eight students attended our workshop on planning and ten attended the workshop on architecture held by the School of Architecture on the same day. Architecture professor James Forren pursued this idea with BBI throughout the fall, and then recommended that the School of Planning get in touch so we could possibly hold a parallel workshop. We all felt that this was a great way to introduce high school students to our disciplines, which most of them don’t know about until well into their undergrad degrees; BBI aims to introduce students to non-traditional careers. Our sponsors were all thrilled about the event, including our main funder, the provincial government, and the Dalhousie President’s Office, who paid for books for each of the planning students. BBI representatives Laurissa Manning (Director, Stakeholder and Community Relations) and Tracey Williams (Business is Jammin’ Youth Coordinator), some of the parents, and a few of the sponsors observed the event.

Aaron Murnaghan, heritage planner at HRM, introduces students to some of the historic business district, with the Grand Parade and Barrington Street.

For our workshop, we planned a few activities: a brief primer to planning as a field and a mapping exercise that would get the students out into the city in the morning, and discussion in the afternoon. Colleagues Eric Rapaport, Dave Guyadeen led a mapping exercise on four nearby streets: Argyle, Barrington, Hollis, and Lower Water. We chose these for their proximity (Argyle begins just two blocks from our building on Spring Garden Road) but also because they show such a range: Argyle was just redesigned into a pedestrian-oriented strip; Barrington is the narrower, more traditional historic main street; Hollis is the 1950s car-oriented version; and Lower Water is both historic and tourist-driven. Students were given maps with one block of each street, and we got them to map things like lighting, seating, trees, retail and commercial land uses, and observe the way people used the street. HRM active transportation coordinator Hanita Koblents met us to discuss the redesign of Argyle street which she led, and then stayed to answer questions for the students; for Barrington Street, heritage planner Aaron Murnaghan discussed a bit of Halifax history; and urban designer TJ Maguire showed the students some of Waterfront Development Corporation‘s work on the sea bridge and the famous orange hammocks on the boardwalk.

HRM Councillor Lindell Smith dropped in to meet the kids and discussed how community support encouraged him to run for office, and the responsibility he feels to represent the community.

After a lunch break where students got to meet the students in the architecture workshop and representatives from BBI and the Dalhousie Presidents’ Office, we held a discussion on their observations. HRM City Councillor Lindell Smith dropped in to meet the students and discuss the responsibilities of holding public office as a member of the African Nova Scotian community; Smith made history in 2016 when he became the youngest councillor and the first African Nova Scotian councillor in over 20 years. Our current Bachelors students Taylor MacIntosh and Ryan Tram also shared their experiences in the BCD program, though by mid-afternoon it was a little more difficult to hold the students’ attention on what was for them a Professional Development day at school. BBI’s Tracey Williams asked the students to answer a few questions so they could evaluate the success of the workshop, and he asked whether they might consider planning as a career; we were surprised when half the students raised their hands! Each of them took home a copy of my edited book Planning Canada: A Case Study Approach, which will provide them with a more thorough introduction to the field, copies of Indigenous community plans completed by our School’s Cities and Environment Unit, and some information about our undergraduate degree. Check out the article about the workshop on the Dalhousie News site here.

Our team: Dave Guyadeen, Eric Rapaport, TJ Maguire from Waterfront Development, BCD students Taylor MacIntosh and Ryan Tram, and me on the sea bridge

Next year, Forren wants to hold a summer camp for youth to introduce them to architecture. We are strongly considering holding our own for planning, and many of the funders have indicated that they are on board, including a representative from TD Canada Trust and the President’s Office. Eric, Dave and I agreed that, as planning professors, this has been one of the most exciting initiatives we’ve been involved in so far! If we get the chance to do this for an entire week we’ll have time to introduce students to some of the interesting historical planning projects, like Africville and the Cogswell interchange projects which had major impacts on the African Nova Scotian community; social planning aspects like the community-driven initiatives in Mulgrave Park and the Halifax Local Immigration Partnership; transportation work being done by Halifax Cycling Coalition; and the Ecology Action Centre’s initiatives.

 

 

Students attending both planning and architecture workshops, along with the professors, BBI staff, and funders. Thanks to our Dalhousie photographer Nick Pearce for this shot.

Jennifer Keesmaat, former director of planning for the City of Toronto, has conducted an independent review of the proposed Halifax CentrePlan. Sponsored by Urban Development Institute of Nova Scotia, Keesmaat has produced a report with recommendations to Halifax planners: twenty-three suggestions to make the CentrePlan stronger. Tonight I’ll be live blogging from her presentation at Ondaatje Hall on Dalhousie’s main campus.

As would be expected, Keesmaat brought a lot of Toronto examples along with her to frame her comments. She did have some insights into the plan that matched those of many planners in the city, but these were coloured by Toronto’s spotty record of urban development and inconsistent planning efforts, many of which she used as examples of good planning. She began by stating that the city needs to ensure complete communities by adding amenities to neighbourhoods, instead of focusing so much on built form.

Keesmaat also says we need to think carefully about heritage conservation districts. This would confirm the social contract between residents and neighbourhoods on what will change and what will not. We need to preserve what makes Halifax unique, those things that are essential to the community, as a trade off for new development. These districts can be very detailed, down to the window type and size, or less prescriptive; the main thing is to protect the scale and overall feeling of the neighbourhood. She gave examples of heritage districts in Toronto, e.g. the MARS Innovation hub on College which still looks and feels very much like it did over a hundred years ago. She is right to some extent–the Victorian upper class Toronto neighbourhoods are fairly well preserved while others have seen rampant high-rise development (including a corner she referenced, Bloor and Bathurst).

Another key area to emphasize in the plan is character areas: Keesmaat says there is a risk in painting with broad brushstrokes across the region, e.g. in terms of density along corridors. Halifax needs to recognize special places in the city, similar to the Brickworks in Toronto, and divert growth to areas that can handle it better. She referenced Toronto’s mid-rise strategy. But, having read Toronto’s strategy in detail, I would say that it actually takes a similar approach to Halifax’s CentrePlan, designating corridors for mid-rise development to help support transit–in fact, I would bet Toronto’s strategy was the inspiration for the Halifax CentrePlan team.

Keesmaat felt that Halifax also needs to capitalize on density to deliver livability. It’s not easy to build a livable city anywhere, but it’s important to negotiate and go back and forth between developer and planning department to improve the quality of the projects, something she says she has read in Larry Beasley’s forthcoming book on planning in Vancouver. This helps build a shared vision based on complete communities. She gave the example of the southeast corner of Sheppard/Don Mills in Toronto, where targeted new retail, community centres, and public art were used to improve the cluster of high-rise residential buildings that had “no amenities and nothing to walk to.” I actually lived there during my PhD fieldwork; the Fairview Mall is on the northeast corner and the Don Mills subway stop is right there, generating a regular stream of traffic until it closes at 1:30am. But the interior section of the “neighbourhood” feels so dimly lit and unsafe that you actually don’t want to walk the 15 minutes to access these.

Keesmaat suggests Halifax needs to integrate its planning frameworks into a comprehensive vision, an interesting comment as Toronto has never had a vision for what the city could be like in 20, 30, or 40 years. Keesmat notes that the investments in density and growth need to be part of a bigger picture, again as part of the social contract with residents. The vision has to “pull you through the implementation and construction phase”, otherwise it’s too much change to ask of people. Halifax needs to link the Integrated Mobility Plan, built form strategy, and open space plan to the CentrePlan, for example. There’s an opportunity to strengthen what the municipality will do, e.g. partnering with the private sector on infrastructure or parks.

Modelling scenarios could help, e.g. what happens when you overlay the proposed CentrePlan, land use bylaw, and urban design guidelines? You might not get the densities that you need. She felt that HRM also needs to think about higher development standards for suburban areas, instead of focusing all the effort on the urban areas to achieve a walkable, low-impact community. Modelling will also help determine whether density bonusing will work, and in which areas. The municipality also needs to seriously consider giving city-owned land over to non-profits or developers to build affordable housing.

Many of Keesmaat’s recommendations are shared by local planners; I was part of a small group who developed comments on the CentrePlan and presented them to the municipal planners. We also noted the lack of overlap/reinforcement of the plan with other plans and strategies like the Integrated Mobility Plan, the need for more detail on how new affordable housing will be built and existing affordability protected, and the need to protect key heritage areas. So it was nice to hear this overlap.

But Keesmaat spent at least half of her time talking about the Toronto projects, referencing them even when audience members asked further questions about Halifax. She certainly made the Toronto examples seem like they were ideal, when many of them have been problematic: I worked a few blocks from the Honest Ed’s redevelopment at Bloor and Bathurst, which is planning to dump a whole lot of height and density on a fairly compact site, retaining two blocks of fine-grained historic buildings which will head decidedly upscale in service and clientele. Even when Keesmaat suggested removing a plan element, such as density bonusing, it was marred by Toronto’s experience: Ontario has only allowed amenity contributions from developers for a few years and Toronto has struggled with implementing it, so it’s no surprise that she suggested that it wouldn’t work in Halifax. Vancouver, Calgary, and New York don’t seem to have this problem, but as a mid-sized city there may be weak uptake from developers here.

Overall, Keesmaat’s review of the proposed Halifax CentrePlan is tinted by her rose-coloured perceptions of Toronto planning, which isn’t exactly the most innovative in the country. And that’s too bad, because actually admitting that planning is complex, and sometimes projects don’t work out the way we think they will, is a fantastic learning experience. Halifax planners could have learned just as much from Toronto’s failures as from its supposed successes. I’ll never forget a talk I attended back in 2006 by the transportation director for the Atlanta Olympics, and all the mistakes he acknowledged and joked about. These errors paved the way for a much more successful run the next time around, and proved highly instrumental for Vancouver, which was preparing for the 2010 Winter Games at the time. The Planning Institute of British Columbia recently held a “fail fair” where planners could share those not-so-great projects in order to learn from them. We’ll see what Halifax planners make of Keesmaat’s review and the public comments on the CentrePlan.

 

Yesterday Vancouver City Council approved the third phase of the Cambie Corridor plan, which will guide future growth along the Canada Line, the LRT line completed for the 2010 Winter Olympics. While Vancouver had always intended to preserve affordable housing along the corridor and use community amenity contributions to support new affordable units, the approved plan is a truly well-balanced attempt at increasing density in a existing neighbourhoods while protecting affordability and equity. There are a lot of lessons here for other municipalities attempting TOD, protection of affordable housing or creation of new rental housing, all of which have proven difficult for Canadian municipalities.

What Vancouver has done in its typical, well-structured and clearly documented way is address the fact that gentrification will definitely occur in this corridor. Council was under pressure to address affordability concerns as several high-end developments were already underway–and well they should be. It’s been nine years since the Canada Line opened and everyone knew land prices would soar immediately as it always does with new LRT infrastructure. At the time, there was a lot of underused land along the corridor (click here for photos from 2009) and despite Vancouver’s attempt to preserve industrial land, it was well known that some of this land would be gobbled up by developers seeking to build luxury high-rise condos, the city’s stock in trade. Not only does Vancouver’s phase three plan address affordable housing, but it goes beyond that with its Public Benefits Strategy which acknowledges the need for new social amenities, recreational facilities, and employment in the corridor. Clearly the 60 public events and extensive online consultation contributed to the development of the plan.

The population in the Cambie Corridor will more than double from 33,600 in 2011, as 45,700 new residents will be living in the area by 2041. The plan sets targets of building 5,000 secured rental units, 2,800 social housing units, and 400 below-market rental units targeted to those earning between $30,000 and $80,000. More than 1,700 existing single-family housing lots will be used for these projects. This means that fully one-quarter of the anticipated 42,000 new residential units will be affordable.

There’s a level of detail in the plan that is lacking in many others: on p43, in the area of Heather and 16th, the City describes the mixed-use 4-5 storey development or 100% secured rental housing they would like to see and state that, “On existing purpose-built rental housing sites (750 16th Avenue, 711 17th Avenue, 3217 and 3255 Heather Street), existing tenants will be entitled to compensation and assistance in accordance with the City’s Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy and its guidelines.” On p56, the exact lots that would be consolidated for a 100% secured rental project are listed; p67 outlines the exact square footage of non-profit organization space, space for a youth centre, childcare facilities, and artist studios that would be required for sites between 39th and 45th Avenue. A closer look at the plan reveals a generally mid-rise approach to density along Cambie, with a concentration of 15- to 18-storey towers near Cambie and 41st. There are some special sites for redevelopment, like the YMCA site near Langara College which will be targeted for 80% condo/20% social housing or 100% rental with 20% below-market rental; Balfour Block at the north end of the corridor will include replacing existing and maximizing new rental units, with a target of 25% below-market and childcare on site. The plan constantly refers to the City’s other plans and strategies, indicating how it reinforces the City’s priorities and goals (e.g. on p27 it explains how the Cambie Corridor Plan helps achieve the goals of Vancouver’s 2017 Housing Strategy).

Elements of the plan’s Public Benefits Strategy include include more than 20 acres of parks, childcare centres (1,080 new spaces), community facilities (civic centre and seniors centre), and improvements to the public realm. Through collaboration with the Oakridge Municipal Town Centre, the plan hopes to attract 9,200 new jobs to the corridor. Transportation improvements will include a #41 B-Line (finally!), and improved capacity on the Canada Line, upgrades to the cycling network.

Expect these targets to be carefully monitored and documented online, something the City has done with most of its other plans. This makes it easy to determine its success at key time points (e.g. ten years after implementation). Vancouver is excellent at documenting its plans and strategies: the Cambie Corridor page on their website even allows you to “read the plan in various levels of detail”: two minutes (infographic), ten minutes (plan summary), twenty minutes (consultation display boards), or the full plan.

While the City can’t solve all of its affordable housing or social problems, the Cambie Corridor Plan is light years ahead of the Halifax CentrePlan’s proposed corridor approach, which is currently available for public review. Corridor planning can be difficult when it includes high-order transit, which has been linked to gentrification. There is a temptation to focus on density and form above all else. The CentrePlan is a comprehensive plan for the entire downtown of the region, and as such it can’t get into the level of detail of the Cambie Corridor Plan. But there are some fundamental problems. First, the plan needs to outline the ways in which it reinforces the goals of other plans and strategies, something it misses the mark on. For example, the designated corridors do not align perfectly with the transit corridors outlined in the 2017 Integrated Mobility Plan. This will be critical if HRM wants to achieve a shift in transportation patterns and choices (Halifax actually saw an increase in its driving mode share from 2011-2016). Second, more specificity for the corridors is necessary to prevent massive redevelopment without regard to its social effects. HRM knows that gentrification will occur, but does not currently have an approach to slowing its effects, including protecting demolition of existing rental housing or ensuring replacement of units that would be lost in new development. The social and community elements of the plan are largely lacking, as is the attention to detail. In addition to this, all corridors are treated the same–vulnerable neighbourhoods like Gottingen Street, the historic black business area which still boasts lots of local shops, affordable rental housing, and social housing are treated the same as Young Street, which doesn’t have the same social concerns, demographics, or types of units. For example, a detailed corridor study for the more vulnerable Gottingen (a much shorter corridor than Cambie) could provide the same level of detail as the Cambie Corridor Plan and provide more clarity for residents and developers.

There is no such thing as a perfect plan, and Vancouver’s skyrocketing housing prices are proof that even when there is success, there may be harmful effects on affordability. But the Cambie Corridor plan is a rare attempt to plan for an entire linear neighbourhood in a much more comprehensive way than most cities in Canada have attempted. It is similar to the corridor planning approach used in cities like Tokyo, which has excelled in this area for decades and achieved a very high level of transit use. But it actually attempts to preserve affordability, consider social amenities and the improve the overall quality of life for residents. Let’s hope that it’s successful; undoubtedly, we will find out through future monitoring and evaluation of the plan.