Harbour East Community Council had a significant development proposal before us last night: Twin Lakes. The Twin Lakes project site is located on Prince Albert Road near the Braemar Superstore (where Napa and the Surveyor’s Association are now). The project consists of two 12 storey buildings linked together with a pedway and a shared parking podium. The site is a good spot for development because it has good access to roads, transit, active transportation, commercial services, groceries, a school, and parks. That’s why the Centre Plan identified Grahams Grove as a great location for new development.
Despite the location being well suited for development, staff recommended that Council not approve Twin Lakes. Staff’s concern is that the project is too big and bulky for the location.
I give the recommendations of HRM’s planning staff a lot of weight. In the fours years that I have been on Council, I have rarely voted against staff’s recommendation on planning matters, and it’s even rarer that I have voted to override a negative staff recommendation (a project in Bedford that had the local Councillor’s support is the only other instance I can think of). I did so here with Twin Lakes because of some very particular circumstances.
Despite not getting staff support, Twin Lakes does have strong community support. Feedback at the public information meeting held in 2019 at the Mic Mac Aquatic Club was overwhelmingly positive, as were the submissions made as part of the public hearing. Only one nearby neighbour expressed concerns about the project. While the planning department isn’t supportive of Twin Lakes, people in the neighbourhood clearly are. That’s pretty rare.
Existing Development Agreement:
Twin Lakes isn’t a blank slate. It’s actually a redesign of an already approved 2006 proposal. The 2006 proposal allowed for a 12 storey multi-unit building, but at that time, the developer only owned a narrow strip of property on Prince Albert Road. That limited street frontage on Prince Albert Road forced the developer to situate the tower in the 2006 version near the crest of the hill, well back from the street, and in close proximity to both the duplexes on Curley Drive and Alderney Elementary. It was a very awkward location.
What has changed since 2006 is the developer acquired two additional properties on Prince Albert Road (Napa and the Surveyor’s Association). Adding those properties has allowed the developer to redesign the project and move it down to street level on Prince Albert Road. This provides several positive benefits:
- Retaining the treed area between the development and Alderney Elementary, resulting in a better buffer between the development on one hand, and the school and nearby duplexes on the other
- Moving the height down the hill means that the building will be less impactful on the scenery around Banook (building at the crest of the hill would have made the building appear much taller)
- A better more pedestrian-focussed streetscape on Prince Albert Road
These are all big improvements over the original proposal! What the developer gets out of the redesign, besides a better project, is two towers instead of one.
The 2006 development agreement is expired, but it hasn’t been discharged by Council. It was sitting in limbo awaiting the outcome of the revised application. Staff recommended rejecting the Twin Lakes redesign, but they also recommended that Council renew the 2006 development agreement. Staff’s advice to reject the improved Twin Lakes project, while allowing the 2006 version to potentially go ahead didn’t make practical sense to me. The redesign is a much stronger project.
In theory, Council could have opted to refuse both the redesign and the extension to the 2006 agreement, but there would have been a lot of risk in that. Refusing to extend the timeline would have been appealable to the Utility and Review Board. If HRM lost an appeal of the extension, the developer’s remaining option would be to build the much less compelling 2006 design. That wasn’t a gamble I was prepared to make, especially when a much improved redesign that has community support was on the table.
Finally, I don’t think the Twin Lakes proposal is nearly as incompatible with the neighbourhood as staff have argued. Grahams Grove has quite a mix of buildings and uses. There are duplexes and small homes at the far end of Prince Albert Road, some small-scale commercial buildings, the two storey, but massive in footprint, Superstore, several mid-rise apartments, and, soon, a 16 storey hotel. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what the form of this place is, and so much of what’s there now is in flux. Besides the hotel, the properties between Twin Lakes and Lawrence Street have all recently been bought by developers. Those properties are all zoned to allow for about six storeys (20 meters), meaning that there will likely be more construction at Grahams Grove in the future. Prince Albert Road by the Superstore is going to look very different in five years.
The elephant in the room in terms of height and scale is the Prince Albert/Glenwood hotel that’s currently under construction. The hotel is in much closer proximity to low-rise homes than Twin Lakes and, yet it was supported by staff at 10 storeys. Council didn’t support the scale of the Prince Albert/Glenwood development, but we lost that battle when the developer changed the project to the as-of-right hotel option. Making the 16 storey hotel the new height standard for everything around Grahams Grove doesn’t make sense, but completely discounting its existence doesn’t make sense either. It’s going to be part of Grahams Grove and we have to think about what that means for the cityscape.
The Centre Plan dictates that everything else in Grahams Grove will be no more than about six storeys (20 meters), which means that without Twin Lakes, the hotel will be 10 storeys taller than everything else. It will be all alone. A finger sticking up out of the landscape! Twin Lakes’s two 12 storey towers provides an opportunity to take some of the edge off the out-of-scale height of the Prince Albert/Glenwood hotel and better manage the transition to the surrounding neighbourhood.
Because Twin Lakes had community support, because it was really a redesign that made significant improvements over the 2006 version of the project, and because the neighbourhood is quite mixed in size and scale, I was comfortable approving the project. Once the appeal period is over, the ball will be in the developer’s court as to when they want to get started.