Council Update: Centre Plan, Com Taxation, Commuter Rail

Meeting agenda June 18 here
Meeting agenda June 18 (Committee of the Whole) here
Meeting agenda June 25 here

Centre Plan: Staff received the go ahead from Council to finalize the Centre Plan’s Package A, the plan for the growth areas inside the Circ in Dartmouth and Peninsula Halifax. The Centre Plan is a big topic that I have written about a few times now, so I thought today, I would provide a District 5 perspective on some of the changes that will be incorporated into the final draft.

5 Glenwood Avenue: One change that I had to push for was the removal of Corridor zoning from 5 Glenwood Avenue. 5 Glenwood Avenue is the other half of the infamous 16 storey hotel project at the corner of Prince Albert and Glenwood. Right now, the developers can’t use any portion of 5 Glenwood Avenue for their hotel because it’s zoned residential. The hotel development has to stay on the 307 Prince Albert Road property. The draft Centre Plan though proposed zoning both 307 Prince Albert Road and 5 Glenwood Avenue Corridor. What that would mean is that once the Centre Plan comes into place, the developers would be able to use 5 Glenwood for part of their project. When I suggested removing the Corridor zoning from 5 Glenwood at Harbour East Community Council, the developers responded by submitted a letter to Regional Council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee opposing my motion. They indicated that they wanted the Corridor zoning to remain so that they could use 5 Glenwood for surface parking.

The whole thing is kind of a situation of wanting to have your cake and eat it too. On one hand, the developers are relying on the existing rules to proceed with a 16 storey over-sized project that would not be permitted under the Centre Plan. At the same time though, they were expecting the Centre Plan to loosen the rules so that they could gain additional rights for that same hotel project. Hardly seems fair!

5 Glenwood. Photo: Haligonia

Fair or not, I’m not one to make decisions out of spite. The Corridor zoning was applied to 307 Prince Albert and 5 Glenwood with the expectation that one building would be built on both properties: the approved eight storey apartment. So the question really was, given the developers dramatic change in plans, where is the best place to transition from intense development on the corner into the low-rise neighbourhood? Does that transition begin before or after 5 Glenwood? I checked in with the immediate neighbours to see what sort of buffer they would like, and the consensus was that a few extra parking spaces at 5 Glenwood wouldn’t make much, if any, difference in reducing the demand for on-street parking on Glenwood Avenue. Therefore, a vegetated buffer or a new lose-rise building (the existing triplex is being demolished) would make for a better transition. Council agreed with me and the Corridor zoning for 5 Glenwood is being removed. 5 Glenwood won’t play any part in the hotel project.

Freeze on Package B Lands: With the Centre Plan’s Package A nearing the finish line, Council approved a freeze on further planning applications in lands that are part of Package B. As-of-right development can still occur in the Package B lands, but anything that requires a plan amendment won’t be entertained. That means any developer that was hoping to proceed with a plan amendment to turn a street that is established residential into a multi-unit building won’t be able to do so outside of the Centre Plan process. Existing applications will still be considered by Council, but a cutoff is being established. This will have more impact on the Halifax Peninsula where plan amendments are much more common for multi-unit projects.

Dartmouth’s 3 Plan Amendments: Council also voted to discontinue work on several pending development applications that were seeking plan amendments, including three proposed developments in Downtown Dartmouth. The details are more complicated than just “Council said no.” Below is a complete explanation for each of the three:

The first project is located in Dartmouth Cove on Canal Street next to the Curling Club. The Dartmouth Cove Plan that has been pending for a while envisions locating higher density buildings in the area, but situated so that they’re setback from the water’s edge, Portland Street, and Newcastle Street. Basically, density would be located towards the middle of Dartmouth Cove and along the Canal. The Dartmouth Cove vision is finally being enabled through the Centre Plan and the Canal Street proposal is in the ball park of what could be considered through the Centre Plan’s development agreement process for future growth nodes. Since the developer is in the ball park, once Package A is in place, they will be able to apply for a development agreement. Redeveloping Dartmouth Cove is complex and there are still challenges to workout around raising all of the Cove lands to protect against sea level rise, and constructing a new road network (HRM needs a portion of the developer’s property to extend Dundas Street). The Centre Plan’s design requirements will also need to be considered by the developer, but this project isn’t dead. It’ll just proceed through the Centre Plan process instead.

Initial Canal Street Proposal for Dartmouth Cove that will need to be revised

The second project requiring a plan amendment that Council discontinued in Dartmouth was a 16 storey tower proposed for the corner of Queen and Victoria. Like Canal Street, Queen/Victoria isn’t an outright no. The Centre Plan will control density in Downtown Dartmouth by ground floor area ratio (GFAR). GFAR is a measure of how much land is used compared to a building’s floor area. For example, a GFAR of 1.0 could be a building of one storey filling a lot completely, or a two storey building on half a lot, or a four storey building on just a quarter. GFAR provides developers with more flexibility in how they arrange the mass of their buildings, but the Centre Plan also tempers that flexibility via design requirements that include stepbacks from the street and other buildings, limits on tower size, active street fronts, etc.

So why is GFAR important for Queen/Victoria? The Centre Plan proposes to preserve most of Portland Street as a heritage district, but it will also allow for more density at the lower end where there are gaps in the streetscape and few historically significant buildings. The GFAR for the Queen/Victoria is 6.75, which is one of the higher GFAR’s in Downtown Dartmouth (the highest is the 8.0 for Develop NS’s parking lot between Prince and King). 6.75 would allow for a multi-storey building, which means that once the Centre Plan is in place, the owner of Queen/Victoria will be able to adjust their proposed building to align with the Centre Plan’s requirements and submit a new application. They will still be able to build something significant on the property under the Centre Plan.

The third closed plan amendment Downtown was for the vacant lands between King and Edward at the foot of Park Avenue adjacent to the Common. The King Street lands have been vacant for almost 50 years after being cleared for a large development in 1970 that never happened. The property was designated as an opportunity site in the Downtown Dartmouth Plan in 2000, but the opportunity designation limited the number of units that could be on the property to 35/acre and the height to 3-4 storeys. The owner submitted a request for HRM asking for a much larger building (up to 15 storeys) than the opportunity site designation allows.

HRM staff did a detailed review and concluded that the combination of shadow impacts on the Common, the site’s location on side streets outside of Downtown’s main commercial core, and its proximity to low-rise residential that will likely be part of a future heritage district, meant that the owner was asking for too much. The Centre Plan continues the established 3 storey height limit, while allowing for up to six storeys adjacent to Alderney Manor. It’s far from what the developer was seeking, but they did gain certainty as to what they’ll be allowed to do, the arbitrary 35 unit per acre cap is gone, and they will be able to build an additional two storeys (total of 6) next to Alderney Manor. I was satisfied with the work done by staff and the conclusion they reached.

So if you’re keeping score, two of the three plan amendments weren’t really nos and have a green light to continue under the Centre Plan, while the third will require significant revision.

Urban Core Community Council: When the Centre Plan is complete, HRM’s urban core will, for the first time, have a common plan. Since one of the main activities carried out at HRM’s Community Councils are planning decisions, the result is a need to reevaluate the existing political structure. In the new Centre Plan area, HRM needs to assign responsibility for (1) approving development agreements, (2) amendments to the Centre Plan, and (3) hearing appeals/variances. What is proposed is the creation of a new Urban Core Community Council that will exist alongside the Harbour East and Halifax and West Community Councils.

I know having our own community council is really important to many folks in Dartmouth. That’s because community councils aren’t just an administrative body where local planning decisions are made, they’re also a forum where people can present to their local councillors on almost any issue. With that need in mind, the scope of the new Urban Core Council will be extremely limited: just land-use amendments, and appeals and variances.

Appeals and variances need to be the purview of the new Urban Core Council because, otherwise, inconsistencies could arise from having two different bodies, Harbour East and Halifax and West, making decisions on appeals. Appeals will likely rarely come up. Since a Centre Plan like approach was adopted in Downtown Halifax, a development officer’s decision has only been appealed to Council once. If the Urban Core Council were to only meet for appeals, it might go years without sitting.

The second issue is likely to come up more frequently: amendments to the Centre Plan. Although thousands of hours have been spent on the Plan and it has been extensively reviewed, HRM will inevitably miss something. It’s the nature of dealing with such complexity. When we realize what was missed, if it’s just a minor Land-Use Bylaw change, the Urban Core Council will be the amending body (MPS amendments would still be at Regional Council). There is a very good reason for this. If the Urban Core Council doesn’t have jurisdiction over minor amendments, then it would be technically possible for either Harbour East or Halifax and West to amend the Centre Plan without the other’s concurrence! Obviously that won’t work so the absence of an Urban Core Community Council means joint sittings of the two existing community councils. A joint sittings would involve 11 of 16 councillors, and of that 11, a majority wouldn’t even represent Centre Plan areas. That doesn’t make sense and isn’t practical. So, land-use bylaw amendments need to be decided on by the new Urban Core Council.

Development agreements though, will stay with Harbour East and Halifax and West. Development agreements will not be as common as tehy are now once the Centre Plan comes in, but they will still arise for the future growth areas (Shannon Park, Mic Mac Mall, Penhorn, and Dartmouth Cove), redevelopment involving heritage properties, and, potentially, sites that are larger than 1 hectare. Development agreements are very firmly local, and should stay with the local community councils.

Harbour East and Halifax and West will continue to exist and an Urban Core Community Council will have narrow jurisdiction over land-use elements that can’t practically be handled elsewhere. The new Urban Core Council will meet maybe 1-3 times a year, if that. There is no threat to Dartmouth’s identity here. Harbour East will carry on as it has since amalgamation. This is strictly about the practicalities of good governance.

Ikea Opening. Photo: Centrecorp

Commercial Taxation: Another major initiative was also back at City Hall: commercial tax reform. The commercial tax reform project began several years ago, but the key missing piece came relatively recently in late 2016 when the Province amended the Charter to allow HRM much more freedom in how it structures commercial taxes. The legislative change opens up options for HRM that were never available before.

So, what problem are we trying to fix with HRM’s new powers? First, commercial assessments aren’t capped, meaning that sudden increases can unexpectedly grow a business’s tax bill without much warning. Sudden increases are particularly challenging for small businesses that operate on narrow margins. To provide greater predictability, staff recommended that HRM use its new taxation powers to phase in assessments over three years.

The phasing of assessments would apply to properties that increased by more than 5% of the average in each fiscal year. Delaying the full impact of a rapidly increasing assessment would mean some lost revenue to HRM, something that the municipality would likely make-up through a higher commercial tax rate. What it means is that businesses with rapidly rising assessments would pay less, while those with little change would pay a bit more due to a higher commercial tax rate. There would be fewer arbitrary winners and losers each year in this system and more predictable taxation for the business community as a whole. Council accepted the recommendation to average assessments. Staff will return to Council with a bylaw for possible implementation in the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

The second issue around commercial taxation is much trickier: fairness. The objection from many small business’s is that because they’re often located on traditional main streets where assessments tend to be higher, they end up paying way more in taxes on a square foot basis than their Big Box store rivals. The table below shows the commercial assessment for a couple of Downtown Dartmouth properties relative to some of the Big Box stores in Dartmouth Crossing

Value (Com)
(sq. ft.)
$/Sq. ft.
Humble Pie$90,600 3600$25.17
New Scotland
$205,700 3736$55.06
TIBS$530,400 11,429$46.41
Ikea$38,627,200 1,438,597$26.85
Walmart$21,595,200 725,709$29.76
Costco$16,180,200 657,047$24.63

On an square foot basis, New Scotland Yard, and TIBS pay way more than all three Big Box stores while Humble Pie is on the same playing field. Does that make sense? Should our small independent business be carrying a comparatively heavier tax burden than the international giants out on the edge of town? Given that our planning objectives are to encourage density in the urban core, does it make sense for our tax system to be creating the opposite incentives? Do our small independents have the same ability to pay as the Big Box outlets? Whose dollars stay here? Who is more involved in our community? You can probably guess what my answers to these questions are 🙂

So, what do we do about it? How do we help small business? The challenge is property taxes aren’t the same as the corporate taxes collected by CRA. HRM has no ability to create a small business specific rate since we tax property, not profits. All that HRM can do is try and direct tax relief to areas where small businesses tend to locate. Staff looked at a couple of different ideas, including a zone system that would raise tax rates in Big Box developments, to offset lowering rates on commercial main streets. Since HRM can’t clearly differentiate small business, staff’s recommendation though was for Council to leave the status quo in place.

Council, however, wasn’t in the mood to abandon reform. What Council ended up agreeing to was an idea of mine to take the zone system, but employ a tiered approach to assessment values. What that means is HRM would have five zones: Big Box, Industrial, Small Medium Enterprise (commercial main streets like Quinpool), High Density (Downtown Halifax), and Rural. Businesses in some zones would pay less on portions of their assessed value up to a threshold (maybe the first $500,000). The system would be similar to income tax where different rates kick in at different thresholds.

You might be asking yourself why complicate things with a tiered approach? Why not just raise and lower the rates by zone and not bother with tiers? The problem with blanket reduction by zone is there are some very high value commercial properties in Downtown Halifax and Downtown Dartmouth that don’t need a tax reduction (offices, hotels). The easiest way to explain is probably with an example from Downtown Dartmouth: Queen Square versus Humble Pie.

Queen Square
Humble Pie. Photo: Eat North

Queen Square has a commercial assessment of over $15,000,000 while the commercial portion of Humble Pie’s building is $90,600. If the first $500,000 of commercial assessment was taxed at a reduced rate, the reduction would apply to all of Humble Pie’s bill, but, for Queen Square, a break on $500,000 of their $15,000,000 assessment wouldn’t make much difference. The tiered approach effectively limits the reduction available to really high-value properties. If HRM were to reduce the overall commercial tax rate in Downtown Dartmouth instead though, we would have the same impact on Humble Pie, the taxes on their entire $90,600 assessment would shrink, but we would also give up revenue on Queen Square’s entire $15,000,000 assessment. A tiered approach would favour small properties and mixed-use buildings, the exact sort of places where small businesses tend to concentrate, without giving up lots of needed municipal revenue on large office buildings and hotels.

A zone system that redistributes the tax burden by tiering assessment won’t be perfect. Some small businesses that happen to be in large commercial buildings, business parks, or shopping malls, will be left out. It’s important to keep in mind though that our current tax system isn’t a bastion of fairness. It already creates winners and losers. The lack of a perfect alternative shouldn’t stop us from trying to put in place a better commercial tax system that aligns with our values and planning goals. Staff will return with a report in the future on this potential system. We’ll see if it’s workable.

If you’re not completely sick of the tax topic by now and have 30 minutes, I would highly recommend the recorded presentation below by Joe Minicozzi from the Art of City Building Conference last year at the Central Library. Minicozzi presents what is a somewhat dull and complicated topic in an interesting, informative, and entertaining way. It’s well worth watching.

Photo: Jeff Harper, Star Metro Halifax

Commuter Rail: There was disappointing news from Council on Tuesday as well. The dream of commuter rail is off the tracks for the foreseeable future. Councillor Outhit, Mayor Savage, and HRM staff really tried to make this work, but we couldn’t come to an agreement with CN. Councillor Outhit summed it up very well on Facebook by pointing out that even if the three levels of government contributed sufficient funds for the infrastructure necessary to make commuter rail work, HRM would still not have scheduling control. It would be pretty hard to operate a transit system that people could rely on with that limitation! Commuter rail is sidelined for now, which means that HRM will have to look at bus rapid transit, ferry, or both to serve the Bedford/Sackville area.


  • Held a public hearing to approve a five storey apartment building on Agricola Street
  • Voted to schedule a number of public hearings including a redevelopment of an existing apartment building on Victoria Road (Halifax), the two large tower proposals on the Carleton/Spring Garden block, an eight storey building on Quinpool Road, a six storey building on Bayers Road, and a construction and demolition transfer facility on Ross Road
  • Granted a fly-past request for the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows on August 11
  • Approved IT software tender, and increased the tender amount for the Burnside Transit Centre roof replacement
  • First reading to amendments to the Campaign Finance Bylaw (all minor)
  • Endorsed the sentiments behind the iMatter climate resolution
  • Amended Council’s procedures (Administrative Order 1) around parental leave for sitting Councillors
  • Reduced the number of Councillors on the Active Transportation Advisory Committee from 3 to 1
  • Awarded both HRM’s special events and community grants
  • Requested a staff report to correct the community name Moosehead to Moose Head on the Eastern Shore

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