Mic Mac Mall Redevelopment:
The most significant Dartmouth item on the agenda was the proposed redevelopment of Mic Mac Mall (being called M District by the proponent who is looking to change the name). The concept plan calls for a whack of new units. Seven 30+ storey towers, five 9 storey buildings, a 12 storey retirement residence, a 14 storey office and parking addition to the existing Mall, new public space, underground parking, and a new pedestrian bridge over the Circ to connect the development to Shubie Park. All in, the development has a potential 2,300 residential units. What’s proposed is to basically add a small town to the Mall.
This is a big potential change, but it’s also something that’s contemplated in the Centre Plan. The Centre Plan designated the Mall as a future growth node. Future growth nodes are generally sites that have a lot of potential to accommodate new growth, but require more detailed site specific planning because of the potential scale. The Mall is an ideal redevelopment site as it’s mostly parking lot, it has great transportation access to transit and highways, it’s already a commercial hub, and it’s in close proximity to existing schools (Crichton Park School may need to be expanded!) and parks. It’s an absolutely ideal spot to allow for more residential development.
It has already been decided through the Centre Plan that the Mall is a great spot for significant new development. What remains unknown is what form that new development will take. That’s the visioning process that, with Council’s vote, will now begin. There is a lot of detail to think about in terms of public space, and site layout and there will be opportunities to come for public feedback.
I’m keen to hear what the public has to say about the property and what it could be. One of my initial observations is the owner’s plan to retain the existing mall building should come with some thought as to how to make the exterior walls more active and pedestrian friendly. Right now, the mall looks inward. All the life is inside and there is nothing on the outside walls except blank space, some loading docks, and a few big entrances to bring people inside. It’s very much a mall of it’s time and place where the exterior didn’t matter. You got there in a car and there was no reason to walk around outside.
If we’re going to go from automobile focussed mall, to mixed-use hub, than I think we’re going to have to think closely about the mall’s exterior. The very early concept plan has the mall ringed by a service road with no apparent change in the footprint, except for near the bus terminal where the new office and parking garage addition would go. This misses so much potential. The exterior could include at-grade commercial shops and services in places so that the mall interacts outwardly with the world and all it’s new potential neighbours. I would also like to see some more ambitious thinking about how the transit terminal is incorporated into the redevelopment. There is plenty of time to dive into all of that though. We’re only at the beginning of detailed planning and at Penhorn, another future growth node, the initial concept changed in some significant ways during the planning process. The same could very well happen here.
Stay tuned for more on opportunities to participate in the visioning process for the M district in 2023.
Short-Term Rental Regulation:
Council deferred scheduling a public hearing on regulating short-term rentals, like Air BNB, until April. What is proposed is to limit short-term rentals to primary residences only in residential zones, while allowing short-term rentals to continue without an owner occupied requirement in commercial and mixed-use areas where hotels are a permitted land-use. The deferral was moved by Councillor Cleary to gather more information on the potential implications and to give the tourism sector a chance to respond. I didn’t support the deferral because I don’t think a lot of the information that Council is seeking will be available and even if it is, I don’t think it will really change the arguments for or against. The need to mitigate some of the harmd that short-term rentals are doing to our housing market is more important and I would have preferred to proceed to a public hearing in January, but that debate was lost. Council voted to defer till April 8-6 with myself, Mason, Smith, Blackburn, Lovelace and Morse voting against deferral.
Council also requested supplemental reports on possibly allowing short-term rentals in residential areas in units that are located on the same lot as person’s primary residence (like in a backyard suite) and on how the new regulations would be enforced. The enforcement piece is something I’m concerned about as HRM’s normal complaint based approach isn’t likely to be effective here. The potential harm created by short-term rentals isn’t isolated to an immediate neighbour the way a fence that’s a foot too high or a shed that’s too close to a property line is. The impact on the housing market is very much a community-wide harm and, as a result, it requires a more proactive approach. Staff will return with recommendations on both enforcement and allowing secondary units to be used for short-term rentals in the future.
Covid Transit Funding:
A few weeks ago, the Province announced they would distribute transit funding to municipalities to offset lost fare revenue. HRM will receive $8.7 million, enough to likely eliminate the 2022 deficit, but not enough to eliminate the new 2023 pressures. Welcome, news, but the intergovernmental situation is more complicated than it first appears.
First, the Province didn’t really provide anything. The money flowed through them from the federal government. The Province was front and centre in the good news press, but they didn’t contribute a dime. When the federal funding was first announced, the feds indicated that matching funds from the provincial governments would be required, and that’s what happened in some places, like Ontario. In Nova Scotia though, our Provincial government provided a list of other municipal supports and housing programs to justify not matching the funding. So rather than $17 million, HRM receives $8.7.
In exchange for allowing the feds to help us, the Province inserted a clause into the funding agreement requiring HRM to work with the Province to increase housing supply which could include:
- Reforming zoning and land use planning
- Enabling more density near transit
- Reforming municipal development charges for new builds
- Speeding up approval of permitting by implementing a digital system
Given all the friction between HRM and the Province, it feels pretty spiteful to throw in unrelated housing stuff into an funding agreement in which the Province’s actual contribution was $0. There is a lot of chutzpah in claiming credit in the press and attaching strings to something you’ve contributed nothing towards!
Most of what the Province is suggesting we’re already doing, and the wording, “work with” and “could include,” is weak and not binding on any specific outcomes. The piece that I find worrisome is reforming development charges for what it could portend. When this has come up elsewhere, what reform has been code for is reducing development charges. The problem is, if you reduce the charges for things like roads and infrastructure, than the general tax base pays for instead. Growth should pay for growth. The way Minister John Lohr talked about the density bonusing fund when he was at Council also makes me wonder if that might be in the Province’s sights. The Minister derided density bonusing as a tax, which it is, but it’s also where the money for HRM’s housing grant program comes from. That moneys goes to non-profits who build and operate affordable housing. Those funds are used for actual affordable housing, and it’s entirely appropriate that new high-end housing should contribute towards housing affordability. This will bear watching.
Council’s ultimate conclusion was we’re not being bound to much here and with the budget being as tight as it is, we need the funding more than we need to make any kind of point on principle here. Besides, the Province has shown that they’re going to do what they’re going to do regardless of HRM’s input or what the Charter says. If they decide they want to force us to subsidize developers by interfering in development charges and hobbling our affordable housing grant program, than we won’t be able to stop them, so we might as well take the federal money that’s available now.
Council approved a motion that I put forward requesting a report on expanding the street navigator program. The role of the street navigator is to support street involved people, both homeless and precariously housed, and connect them with services. This is what the navigators do:
- Offer support to secure employment
- Find sustainable housing solutions
- Prevent eviction
- Purchase medication
- Obtain addictions and/or mental health services
- Provide financial assistance with utility arrears
- Address food security
- Acquire clothing,
- Provide transportation
- Connect with education institutions
- Obtain valid ID
- Assist with relocation
- Refer to the appropriate community services departments
The navigator program is delivered by the urban business improvement districts (Spring Garden Road, North End Halifax, Downtown Halifax, Downtown Dartmouth), but it’s largely funded by HRM. Current funding allows for one navigator dedicated to Downtown Halifax and Spring Garden Road and one navigator (Shawn Parker) to cover North End Halifax and Downtown Dartmouth. While the program is delivered by the BIDs, the navigators spend a lot of time working outside the BID’s formal boundaries in the wider area. They go where they’re needed.
Unfortunately, they are needed an awfully lot right now as the housing crisis has worsened and the number of people without a home and who are precariously housed has grown. The program is strained. Shawn interacted with 963 people across North End Halifax and Downtown Dartmouth in 2022. The BIDs have sent HRM a letter asking for $100,000 more in funding to hire another navigator. The funding would allow North End Halifax and Dartmouth to each have their own full-time navigator rather than sharing one.
The debate at Council was a bit challenging. The main concern of my colleagues seemed to be that the navigator program isn’t a comprehensive solution (communities in the suburbs can’t access it). The need is greatest in the core of HRM, but the suburbs have issues around homelessness too. The problem is the urban BIDs have the most money and staff capacity and it would be very difficult for some of the smaller suburban BIDs to take on the same sort role, which means a different approach is needed outside the core. There is a staff report coming on that issue in 2023.
In the end, Council agreed to request a report on the navigator program and to consider the additional funding in our budget deliberations. Whether the increase actually gets approved or not I don’t know right now as this is a difficult year and not a great time to ask for extra anything. Tough year or not, it’s way tougher for people in crisis. Is the navigator program comprehensive? No, but it’s serving the areas with the greatest need and it’s also what we have available right now. HRM does need to think about how we’re going to provide this service (provincial support like what they once provided to the navigator program would be helpful), but in the current crisis, it’s what HRM can do and expand the quickest. I’m hoping Council will agree to fund this.
- Deferred a public hearing to rezone land in Prospect because the area Councillor was unable to attend due to illness. This will happen in January instead
- Registered 1460 Oxford Street, and 1322 Robie Street as heritage buildings
- Set heritage hearings for 1608 Hammonds Plains Road and 5812 and 5814 North Street in Halifax
- Approved a new operating agreement for The Bay Community Centre (HRM owned facility, managed by a community group)
- Appointed Councillor Lovelace as HRM’s representative on the Canadian Urban Transportation Agency, and Councillors Deagle-Gammon and Kent to the Water Commission Board
- Scheduled a public hearing to consider allowing more compact development at Carriagewood Estates in Beaverbank
- Initiated planning processes to consider industrial development in Goodwood
- Ratified the direction set on budget in our last meeting and approved the advanced tender list (project approval will come in January, this is the nod so that staff can start work on tender packages)
- Approved the Bedford West Park Facilities Plan
- Approved the new Council boundaries (more on this in my e-news tomorrow)
- Requested a staff report on the proposed greenhouse/conservatory at the Halifax Public Gardens and on potentially establishing a new heritage streetscape in Halifax from 1308-1390 on Robie Street
- Adopted changes to the special events levy to allow for a more seamless interrupter clause. The need to be able to suspend the levy wasn’t contemplated until COVID devastated the tourism sector in 2020
- Tweaked the Community Grants Program (mostly house-keeping type amendments to make it easier for applicants to acess the program)
- First reading for shifting the stormwater right of way charge that HRM pays for municipal streets and sidewalks from the water bill onto the tax bill. Logic is that charges for the public good should be paid for through taxes, not as a flat fee on the water bill