Managing growth will always be challenging. Change is hard, and doubly so when it affects the places we love and cherish. Development, however, brings with it opportunities to improve our community. We don’t need to look any farther than Downtown Dartmouth with its growing collection of shops and restaurants to see the difference that new development can make. If we cut off redevelopment in urban areas, we don’t just miss out on opportunities to enhance our community, we actively add to our problems. Pushing growth out to the edge of town results in higher taxes, more traffic congestion, less transit use, a decaying core, and a host of environmental issues. The key is to find a balance that allows for growth in the right locations. It’s not easy, and there will never be complete unanimity as to how to proceed, but it’s doable. And so it was Tuesday night at Harbour East Community Council.
On Council’s agenda was a public hearing for a development on vacant lands along Portland Street, across the street from Canadian Recycling. What is proposed are two six storey towers on Portland Street with ground floor commercial (Buildings A and B), and a four storey building behind the other two on a landlocked lot that backs onto homes on Rodney Road (Building C).
Development in this part of Dartmouth has been contentious in the past. A proposed 12 storey development across the street on the Maynard Lake side of Portland was roundly panned and fought by the neighbourhood, and for good reason, it was an awful proposal. The developer in that case opted to pull their application when faced with the prospect of a negative staff recommendation and the proposal died before ever coming to Council.
The script this time was very different. I have received almost universally favourable reviews of the Portland Street part of this project, which is really unusual. Just under 40 people, a large portion of whom are from the immediate neighbourhood, wrote Council in support of the overall project. People only typically write Council when they’re opposed to something. It’s very rare for regular people from a neighbourhood to express support in such large numbers.
A lot of the enthusiasm is clearly coming from reaching a consensus in the Centre Plan for what the future holds for this section of Portland Street. The Plan identifies this section as a growth area and it allows for six storey buildings with pedestrian-oriented ground-floor uses. The Portland portion of the proposal is an almost perfect fit for the Centre Plan. It’s exactly the sort of development that we want and that the community clearly supports.
While around 40 people wrote in support of the overall project, and Buildings A and B on Portland Street received almost universal approval, the immediate neighbours were not so thrilled with Building C. Seven of them spoke against the project at the public hearing. Concerns expressed about Building C included that is too big, would loom over homes, that they would lose privacy when the mature trees are cut down, and that it would set a precedent that would allow future apartment buildings to be built in established low-density neighbourhoods.
Building C’s lot is a very odd piece of property. It’s landlocked and doesn’t really belong to either Portland or Rodney. There was once a house on it that was accessed by a right-of-way from Rodney, but since the property is currently vacant, that right-of-way is inactive. The immediate neighbours have enjoyed having this vacant lot nearby for decades because the mature trees and lack of development left them with backyards that are very private and green. I can very much understand not wanting to lose that.
In our society, we all own what we own. It’s not reasonable to expect someone to leave their property empty to benefit someone else’s private property. The question for Council wasn’t whether prime land in the Regional Centre in a growth area should be left vacant, but rather whether the four storey apartment building meets HRM’s planning goals and provides a reasonable transition to the single-family homes behind it. Is it compatible? How does it compare to a couple of duplexes, which would be permitted under both the incoming Centre Plan’s Established Residential Designation and the existing zoning?
A review of the design indicates that the developer of the project has gone to great lengths to make sure Building C is as unobtrusive as possible. The building is carved into the side of the hill, making it effectively a three storey building from the viewpoint of the backyards on Rodney Road. Three storeys is also exactly what would be permitted for a duplex under the draft Centre Plan (11 metres). The height of Building C is really buried into the landscape and isn’t that different than what could result from an as-of-right duplex development scenario.
In terms of privacy, the developer’s design puts just two units directly on the back, with two more having an off-angle view towards Rodney Road. Most units face towards the sides or Portland Street. That’s again not much different from what would result from a pair of duplexes in an as-of-right scenario. Since the whole development faces north, the building’s shadow won’t fall on Rodney Road homes, the shadows will primarily fall on the developer’s own property. No one on Rodney will be in wind or shadow from this project with tons of people peering into their homes. From a design point-of-view, Building C is very modest and designed in such a way to work with the landscape and minimize offsite impacts on neighbours.
A number of neighbours expressed concern that the rezoning creates a precedent for future development and that it invalidates all the effort that went into the Centre Plan. It’s true that Building C’s lot is part of the Established Residential designation in the Centre Plan, which wouldn’t allow for an apartment building the size of Building C. I thought long and hard about that. The Centre Plan is a project I have been strongly in support of and I have voted against more than one project that was way offside of it over the last three years. So why not here?
The Centre Plan can’t anticipate every scenario, circumstances, or opportunity. No plan can. City building is never complete, it’s a constant process of iteration over time. Plans that aren’t specific fail, but so do ones that are so rigid that they can never bend to accommodate the unexpected. A successful plan isn’t one that never needs to be adapted, it’s one in which the need for changes are infrequent and minimal because it got most things right. When the one-offs arise, a good plan should have a clear set of principles to provide context for evaluating any change.
Some of the Centre Plan’s core themes are to bring new growth and development into the urban core in specific growth areas that are best able to handle it. Growth areas are mixed-used neighbourhoods, with good access to transit and other services, and that have underutilized land that is available for redevelopment. The Plan requires that the impacts of growth in these areas on existing neighbourhoods be minimized by good urban design that manages the transition from higher density areas to lower density areas.
Building C is located on an Established Residential lot, but the proposal aligns with the Centre Plan’s key principles: it’s immediately adjacent and connected to a growth area where we want to see development (it will be accessed from Portland Street not Rodney Road), and the proposed building is designed to transition from the higher density development on Portland to the lower density housing nearby through good design. This doesn’t create a precedent, it doesn’t invalidate the Centre Plan, it adjusts an existing boundary to make the most of the opportunity before us to change this section of Portland for the better. The project doesn’t agree completely with the Centre Plan’s specifics, but it fits the overall intent and the core principles. There is no precedent here from this very narrow and limited adjustment for a very unique piece of property. This will not threaten the Plan’s integrity or create opportunities for major disruption in established neighbourhoods.
Council agreed with our planning staff’s recommendation to allow the rezoning and proceed with the project.