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.

 

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