Agenda, January 11, 2022
Yesterday, HRM finished construction of 24 of the 26 modular housing units in Downtown Dartmouth. HRM still has to finish work on the kitchen trailer and on renovations to make two units accessible, but the other 24 units are done and have been handed over to Out of the Cold. This is a significant milestone, but there is still work to do to get the Halifax location at the Centennial Pool parking lot up and running. The modular housing project was before Council this week to do just that with an increase in the budget by $1.2 million to build the Halifax site for a total of $4.4 million. The budget increase is necessary because costs have been more than expected in terms of site prep in Dartmouth and HRM had to buy new modular units after rejecting an offer to buy used.
There has been some criticism of HRM’s efforts on this project and that has largely been a situation of HRM’s own making. HRM screwed up on this project, but not in the way that people think. Our screw-up was overpromising and then under-delivering in terms of how long it would take and how much it would cost. That sometimes happens when you’re trying to share information on something where there is a great deal of uncertainty. The modular project was particularly vulnerable to overpromise because it had a much higher degree of risk than a typical HRM project.
There was more risk and uncertainty around the modular project because (1) HRM has never done anything like it before, meaning there was no staff experience for anyone to draw upon, and (2) because HRM treated this project as an urgent emergency. Rather than the usual approach of staff going away, fully developing a plan for Council’s consideration, and then presenting the findings to Council in a recommendation report, HRM opted to move ahead without having everything fully worked out. That was done in order to get the new housing units in place as quickly as possible and that effort has been a success.
In the space of just four months, HRM has created 24 entirely new units (soon 26) for people in desperate need in our community and a semi-permanent dedicated home for Out of the Cold, something that Out of the Cold hasn’t had before. These aren’t typical shelter beds in a room either. Each individual will have their own space with a door that they can lock.
Four months is a very rapid response that stacks up extremely well. Consider the various projects that have been approved under the federal rapid housing initiative. They’re all worthwhile and will make a difference in our community, but a year and a half later, none are finished. That’s not because anyone has done a bad job, it’s because construction is complicated and takes time. It’s not quick, cheap, or easy, especially with COVID. The most truly rapid new housing built by anyone, government or non-profit, has been HRM’s modular housing project in Dartmouth. Four months is record time and that’s because HRM and everyone else working on the project (the contractor, Nova Scotia Power, Halifax Water) made it top priority.
I realize that because of how HRM mishandled things in August that some want to hate everything the municipality does around housing right now, but the speed that this project has been delivered on is remarkable and the end result will significantly improve many lives.
At the risk of continuing to fall into the overpromise trap, HRM is expecting to have the Halifax side (38 units) ready in March. When they’re in place, the resulting total of 64 units will be enough for approximately a fifth of HRM’s estimated homeless population. Is it mission accomplished? Well no. The real measure of success is does everyone have a home and that is a much higher bar and most definitely isn’t something that HRM can fix alone. It will take the collective efforts of the non-profit sector and, importantly, the Provincial and Federal governments (the Province in particular is key to a long-term solution). With many new units coming soon through the various rapid housing projects, the situation will, hopefully, further improve. I remain concerned, however, that unless the Province gets over its ideologically driven refusal to actually build and operate affordable housing, something that they very much used to do as a core function before the 1990s, that we will continue to struggle.
For now, 24 (soon to be 64) new units is a good start that will improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens. It would be a good news day if it weren’t for HRM’s earlier overly ambitious updates on budget and timing that set very high expectations that we just couldn’t meet. Communications aside, this was still delivered quickly by any objective measure and even at a higher than anticipated cost, was still very much worth doing.
Southdale Development Proposal:
The other significant Dartmouth item on the Council agenda was the initiation of the planning process for development of some vacant land in Southdale (behind Gaston Road at the end of Lynn Drive). This chunk of land is home to a large wetland called Eisner’s Cove and is probably the largest piece of undeveloped land left in the urban core. It’s undeveloped because the land was owned by the Province as part of the North Woodside Industrial Park and later through a Crown corporation, Innovacorp. Innovacorp identified that they didn’t have any use for the property and sold it to a private company, AJ Legrow Holdings. Legrow has partnered with Clayton Developments on planning for future development.
So what could happen in Southdale? Under the Centre Plan, the Southdale lands are identified as a Future Growth Node. The Future Growth Node designation applies to large areas of vacant or under-used lands that have the potential to be redeveloped, but that require a more detailed site specific plan to do that. Other Future Growth Nodes in Dartmouth include Mic Mac Mall, Penhorn, Shannon Park, and Dartmouth Cove. Future Growth Nodes require a clear community vision and that exists at Shannon Park, Darmouth Cove, and Penhorn from past planning work. No one has ever looked at Southdale in any real detail though so the first step is to initiate a visioning process to identify what the lands could be.
The Clayton Legrow application is a starting place for discussion and envisions several blocks of narrow format homes that would be sold at a relatively affordable price. Clayton’s target audience would be first-time home buyers. There would also be several low-rise apartment buildings (3 – 6 storeys). The Eisner’s Cove wetland in the middle of the site would be preserved as passive greenspace with formal trails replacing the informal ones that already exist. It would be a very sizable new park!
I have heard from a few folks already with concern about Eisner’s Cove, traffic on Lynn Drive (currently a quiet dead-end street), and ensuring there is a connection to Baker Drive. I have also heard from people who feel we badly need the housing that would be created through this development. If the planning work is done well, I think there is the potential for this development to protect Eisner’s Cove, create new park space, provide badly needed new housing, and better connect Southdale and Gaston Road to Baker Drive (a long-standing ask). This is a big site, and if done well, it could be quite special.
Council voted unanimously to initiate the planning project, which means that public consultation will begin this year (likely in the next few months). I urged staff to think broadly in terms of the consultation effort as interest in this project is significant throughout Southdale. It’s not just the immediate neighbours! Staff indicate that they’re planning to approach this on a neighbourhood level in terms of notification, which makes sense given the significance. I will share upcoming consultation opportunities through my monthly e-newsletter when details are available.
- Rescinded a staff report request around HRM taking over operation and maintenance of a number of Regional Trails (BLT, St. Margaret’s Bay, Cole Harbour)
- Deferred discussion on commercial taxation and the HalifACT progress report to a future Committee of the Whole where a more detailed discussion can take place
- Approved designating 5663 Cornwallis Street as a heritage property
- First reading on changes to the taxi bylaw to allow permitting and licensing payments to happen online (needed to define licensing period from the point a license is applied for rather than by the applicant’s birthday)
- Amended a number of administrative orders to reflect the recent Centre Plan approval
- Increased the budget for two garbage truck trailers
- Approved entering into an economic partnership with Portsmouth, England
- Scheduled public hearings to consider amendments to the Indigo Shores and Seton Ridge developments and to consider allowing industrial and highway commercial uses at the Conrad Quarry Lands in Montague/Waverley
- Authorized the CAO and Mayor to conclude a less than market value lease with the Dartmouth Lawn Bowls
- Requested that HRM consider whether 1608 Hammonds Plains Road should be a registered heritage property (the Ethiopian Church)
- Requested a staff report on activating the Province’s recent Charter changes to allow inclusionary zoning and grants to individuals and businesses for affordable housing projects
- Declined to provide financial support for a legal challenge of Quebec’s Bill 21