Council Update: King’s Wharf

Agenda Harbour East Council February 6

Harbour East Community Council held a public hearing and approved revisions to the development agreement for King’s Wharf on Thursday. The revised King’s Wharf plan includes some significant changes around access, layout, building massing, and public spaces. What the hearing wasn’t, was a retrial of the whole King’s Wharf concept. The developer has an approved plan and four buildings have already been built. The decision to redevelop King’s Wharf as a higher-density, mixed-use, residential and commercial was made back in 2008 and it has generally been a good development. King’s Wharf has taken a disused, heavily contaminated, marine industrial site and turned it into space for new residents and businesses. King’s Wharf has brought more people to Downtown Dartmouth and it has played a part in our community’s renaissance. The question before community council wasn’t, what should happen at King’s Wharf? The question was is the revised King’s Wharf plan better than the old one? Council’s answer to that was a clear yes.

The big improvement in the new plan is in the realm of urban design. The old plan for King’s Wharf featured some really long building blocks and some fairly big open spaces. It wasn’t a great design from a perspective of creating engaging streets and it lacked any sense of human scale. The revised plan still features tall buildings, but the site is better divided up with shorter blocks, a better distribution of park and open spaces, better setback requirements, and more pedestrian passages throughout. It strikes a much better balance.

Old King’s Wharf plan
Revised King’s Wharf plan

It’s noteworthy that although the building design and massing at King’s Wharf has changed in the revised plan, Fares didn’t actually request any new units. The site maximum of 1,500 is the same as it was before. What has changed is how that density is arranged. The old approach of some rather sizable mid-rise buildings has been replaced with a low-rise approach near the water, with height concentrated in a few towers on podiums. The tallest buildings have been lined up along King’s Wharf Place, opposite Waterfront Development’s future high-rise site at Alderney/Prince/King, which is a much better outcome for existing King’s Wharf and Admiralty Place residents. The tower on a podium approach is a better overall design for pedestrians, for mitigating wind, and is an improvement over the old design that could result in some really monolithic mid-rises.

King’s Wharf Place streetscape old
King’s Wharf Place streetscape revised Shorter streetwalls and setbacks
Revised King’s Wharf heights (in meters 3.0-4.0 meter is typically 1 storey.)
Low-rise townhouse style will make for a more interesting waterfront

One of the more controversial components of the revised plan is the changes to the second access road. Fares has always been required to construct a second, grade separated access across the tracks before any additional buildings can be added to King’s Wharf. The original plan proposed a circular ramp structure to get vehicles up high enough so that they could pass over the tracks on a bridge. Although the so-called helix was part of the approved plan, it really was an awful solution. It would have:

  • Wrecked one of the best views in Dartmouth with a parking garage style concrete monstrosity
  • Mightn’t have been navigable by a fire truck, thus, defeating the whole point of a grade separated access
  • Wouldn’t have fit on Fares property, resulting in a requirement to buy land from HRM that is currently park and street right-of-way
  • Would have been expensive to build and then costly for HRM to maintain
A spiral road from Chongqing, China. King’s Wharf’s version would have been shorter, but this is basically what was envisioned. Photo: ImagineChina

The helix approach really was an awful idea, but, unfortunately, the whole reason this awful idea was in the plan in the first place is because there is no obvious alternative. Horrible parking garage style helix? Cogswell style overpasses? Both would add a lot of ugliness to the Dartmouth waterfront. A tunnel would be great in theory since it would be out of sight, but the dip in the tracks means it’s really impractical. A tunnel would have to go really deep, and it would of course always be at risk of flooding. Fares and HRM even looked at whether a grade separated second road is really needed. The conclusion of that work is that King’s Wharf Place has enough capacity, even with the trains, for regular traffic, but grade separation is still required to ensure emergency access.

So, what to do? We need another route into King’s Wharf for emergency vehicles but there aren’t any great options to do that. What Fares came up with is a narrow ramp that would be located entirely on the company’s property. In the future, the ramp could, potentially, be hidden from view by a new building on the Alderney lands that the company already owns. The ramp would be for pedestrians and emergency vehicles only due to its width, grade, and proximity to the existing intersection at Alderney and King’s Wharf Place. It’s not something that would work for regular vehicle traffic.

The new ramp isn’t a great solution, but it’s the best of a bunch of bad options. I feel for any condo owners who bought in King’s Wharf, who did so with the expectation that they would one day have a way to drive over the tracks without being potentially delayed for a few minutes by CN’s trains. That’s what was in the original plan so it’s not an unreasonable expectation to have! The helix, quite simply, should never have been part of that original plan because it was a deeply flawed solution. The emergency vehicles only ramp that is likely to be screened by a future building, and that doesn’t wreck that great view out from Alderney Drive is making the best of a bad situation.

King’s Wharf during Dorian. Photo: Brian Leadbetter

Sea Level Rise
The reality of climate change is undeniable. Human civilization is having a major impact on our planet and we need to change our ways. Even if we were to stop emissions tomorrow though, some sea level rise is already baked in. To try and avoid or lessen future disasters, HRM requires all residential construction to be 3.8 meters above sea level. The first phase of King’s Wharf went well beyond HRM’s requirement, and sits 8 meters above sea level. It isn’t going to flood. The next phase of construction at King’s Wharf will once again exceed the HRM standard, rising 4.25 meters above the harbour. There is no such thing as zero risk on the waterfront, but the low-lying ground that was flooded in Dorian’s 2.9 meters (combination of tide and 1.5 meter surge) is going to be raised. It’s not the final elevation. More fill is coming to King’s Wharf.

Ferry Terminal Park Connection
When King’s Wharf initiated the planning process for the revised agreement, their application originally included construction of a trail from Ferry Terminal Park to King’s Wharf on the water side of the train tracks. I was sorry to see this piece dropped from the plan because King’s Wharf and Ferry Terminal Park actually have the same problem: they’re both dead-ends that are cut-off from the rest of Dartmouth by water and the train tracks. As a result, there is no pedestrian through traffic in either space and less activity than would otherwise be the case. Connecting the two would enhance both.

So why did the trail connection disappear? Legal issues. HRM can’t compel King’s Wharf to undertake projects through a development agreement on lands that a developer doesn’t own. Since HRM owns the waterlot between King’s Wharf and Ferry Terminal Park and not Fares, it can’t be a part of the King’s Wharf development agreement. Connecting King’s Wharf and Ferry Terminal Park is a compelling idea, but if it’s going to happen, it’s going to have to be an HRM project. I didn’t want to see the trail connection just drop so I moved a motion requesting a staff report on completing it. We’ll see what options staff brings back for Council to consider.

Substantive versus non-substantive
Finally, I did get a surprising number of emails about future potential changes to the King’s Wharf plan, specifically around the development agreement’s clause related to substantive versus non-substantive changes. Every development agreement that HRM enters into defines what is considered a substantive or non-substantive change. The key difference is that Council can only make substantive changes at a public hearing after public engagement has taken place whereas non-substantive changes can occur without a formal process. A non-substantive changes still requires a staff report and a Council vote at a public meeting, but it doesn’t require a public hearing or community engagement. The reason for the distinction is to focus public engagement and resources on big picture decisions, not minutia.

From the feedback I received, there seemed to be a fear that the non-substantive provisions were some sort of hole in the agreement that would allow Fares to easily change the plan again in the future without people knowing about it. I asked staff a bunch of questions on this and the non-substantive elements really are limited to building design, commencement dates, etc. Anything that is fundamental to the revised plan including things like building heights, massing, location of streets and parks, the access ramp etc, would require a public hearing to change. What can be approved as non-substantive changes includes the design of individual buildings (would still need to comply with heights and setbacks), change in the commencement/completion dates, allowing cruise ship or yacht docking, surface parking and temporary use provisions, and phasing. So any change that’s really fundamental would require a public hearing. I couldn’t identify anything amiss here.

Next Steps:
Now that the revised development agreement has been approved by Council, Fares can finalize the design of the next building. The emergency access road will need to be part of that next phase and the building’s specific design will need approval by Harbour East. Fares is hoping to restart construction at King’s Wharf this year.