It was a challenging night at Harbour East Community Council. The revised design for Prince Albert/Glenwood (down a floor) was back before us. The reduction in height wasn’t enough to win over the immediate neighbours. The easy path for me would have been to side with the opposition and vote against the project. I didn’t do that. I didn’t because I firmly believe that the proposal will add to the fabric of our community. The proposal incorporates a lot of great urban design principles and is an opportunity to add new residents and business on a derelict site, in a mixed use area, that is identified in the upcoming Centre Plan as suitable for growth. I would have preferred a six storey building, but six storeys wasn’t viable. My judgement is that one extra floor and a small penthouse wasn’t a good enough reason to vote against the project given its many positive aspects. Below is a detailed account of my rationale.
Opportunities and Challenges: 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 that we simply can’t ignore. We don’t need to look any farther than Downtown Dartmouth with its growing collection of shops and restaurants to see the difference that development can make. Projects like King’s Wharf and Founders Corner played a pivotal role in Downtown Dartmouth’s rebirth by bringing new residents and changing the perception of the area. 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 without wrecking what we value most in our existing neighbourhoods. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.
Planning Context: One of the big challenges we have in managing growth is Dartmouth’s existing 1970s plan is hopelessly out of date. It requires all buildings with more than three units to go through a development agreement process. That’s a very low threshold and it’s made worse by the lack of guidance on what more than three units means. If you’re a developer, how much more than three is appropriate? 10? 20? 50? The Plan doesn’t provide any answers. If you’re a resident, how can you have a reasonable expectation about what will happen on your street or in your neighbourhood with rules like these? Our current approach creates divisive fights over specific projects, like Prince Albert/Glenwood, and really doesn’t serve anyone’s interest.
HRM is moving away from this acrimonious process with the Centre Plan. When finished, the Centre Plan will allow for more as-of-right development, but it will also clearly identify where growth will happen, where it won’t, and what form it will take. It’s an attempt to replace acrimony with certainty. The draft Centre Plan designates a number of growth areas for more intensive use. Growth areas all have a mix of uses, access to services, transit, and underutilized land. In Dartmouth, this includes places like Wyse Road, Pleasant Street by the old Sobey’s store, Portland Street by Maynard Lake, and Grahams Grove. The Prince Albert/Glenwood site is part of the Grahams Grove growth corridor and the draft Centre Plan allows for a height of 20 meters there (approximately six storeys).
Prince Albert/Glenwood Design: While there is community consensus that Grahams Grove is a suitable location for new development, there is still debate as to what form growth should take. Is the Prince Albert/Glenwood design appropriate? My analysis is that the proposal is exactly the sort of project we want to see more of in HRM. The building manages the transition to the surrounding neighbourhood very well. It steps down from its high point at the intersection, which when combined with the change in elevation from the rising hillside, means that it is effectively a three storey building next to the first house on Glenwood. The building makes the most of its corner by adding new commercial space that’s oriented to the street while stepping back the floors above. It uses a variety of materials to create visual interest and break up the building’s mass, and it has several doors fronting on Glenwood to create an active street front. There is a lot to like from a design perspective and it’s exactly the sort of thoughtful approach to infill that the Centre Plan is looking for.
The community has had a lot of influence on this design. What started as a 15 storey tower proposal in 2011 was redesigned as 10, it then became nine after the Public Information Meeting and, after my motion at Community Council back in December, is now eight (7 plus penthouse). I had hoped to see the revised design at six storeys to perfectly align with the draft Centre Plan’s direction, but the developer has indicated that the project would no longer be viable at six. At the public hearing, the developer said that six would mean a total redesign to use cheaper materials (wood instead of concrete, steel and glass). The resulting pitched roof on a wooden structure would end up not making the building that much shorter. Basically, we would have a more Clayton Park/Baker Drive style approach. Given the long history, I believe him and staff when they say that seven plus penthouse is the final offer. Is it still too much?
After reviewing the design, I have to conclude that the eighth-floor penthouse isn’t much of a factor. It covers less than 30% of the roof area and is setback from the edges, which means it won’t be easily seen from nearby. That eighth floor will have little impact on Glenwood and when viewed from the lake, it will even fit underneath the ridgeline.
So what we’re really left with is a well-designed project, that infills a prominent corner in a place that has been identified for growth, that adds new residents and businesses, and potentially kick-starts other projects, but is one main floor (3.2 meters) higher than the ideal six stories. Is one floor and a small penthouse worth scrapping the whole thing over? Seven storeys, is shorter than several of the buildings on the other side of the lake, it’s two floors higher than the nearest five storey portion of Banook Shores, and it’s well below the 11 storeys that was approved back in 2013 just 200 meters away at 3 Bartlin Road (behind Napa). HRM’s planning staff are in support of the project and I’m satisfied that the pluses far outweigh any negatives.
I did want to touch on a few other issues that were raised in relation to this project in more detail. I spoke to these in December when I identified that compatibility was my main concern about the project, but they’re worth reiterating. Below you can read about wind, traffic, and density.
Wind: A number of people expressed concern that wind coming off the building could negatively impact the paddling course. This is understandable given the importance of Lake Banook and prominent local examples of wind causing problems in other spots in HRM such as Queen Square on Alderney, the Maritime Centre, and the new Convention Centre. All of our local references for negative wind impacts though are very different than the Prince Albert/Glenwood proposal. They’re all much taller buildings and they all have a sheer street walls that allow the wind to come right down onto the sidewalk. Prince Albert/Glenwood is less than half the size of these problematic buildings and it has a first floor podium, which should dissipate wind that might get channeled down from floors 2-7.
It’s worth noting as well that where wind impacts occur, the effect tends to be very localized. The corner of Spring Garden and Barrington can be quite blustery, but just a block away, the wind effect is gone. The race course is over 300 meters away from Prince Albert/Glenwood and there are other buildings and trees between the site and the lake. This a good buffer. For context, 300 meters is the same distance from the swirling winds at the foot of Queen Square to the First Baptist Church at Ochterloney and Victoria. The project is very unlikely to generate wind because of it’s relatively modest height and mitigating design elements and, even if it does, it’s far enough away that the winds won’t affect Banook.
This isn’t just my opinion. The developer completed a wind study for the previous 15 storey proposal (if 15 isn’t going to cause problems 8 certainly won’t), and HRM staff are satisfied with the conclusion. When development was proposed for the old YMCA site, which is much closer to the race course, Canoe-Kayak Nova Scotia intervened in the process. That work built a great deal of capacity in the organization on this subject. I know Canoe-Kayak is aware of the Prince Albert/Glenwood proposal and they opted not to provide any submissions to HRM.
Traffic: Traffic is a common issue of concern when it comes to development and again it’s understandable. New buildings and business mean more cars. We tend to fixate though on what’s immediately in front of us and imagine the worse. If the developer builds the maximum ninety units at Prince Albert/Glenwood, then we’ll have approximately 135 new residents, give or take. Not all 135 will drive. Some will take the bus or use the nearby Banook Greenway to get around by foot or bike. Of those that drive, they’re not all going to leave at the same time each morning causing traffic chaos. Their comings and goings will be staggered. The Traffic Study completed for this proposal bears this conclusion out.
I agree that there are problems with this section of Prince Albert Road, but those problems are pre-existing and related to the underlying design. Fixing Prince Albert Road is the municipality’s responsibility, which is why I have been pursuing a redesign for this section. I’m satisfied that the traffic impact related to this development will be very slight.
Density: The Banook Area Resident’s Association has cited 60-70 units instead of 90 as an appropriate density for the site in their campaign. Density, however, is just a number. More isn’t inherently bad and, in fact, we all benefit from situations where we can allow greater density where services already exist. Where things can go awry is when negative impacts result from allowing too much in one spot. Those impacts could be too much traffic, or relate to a building’s form becoming too big to fit in extra units. The results of density is what we should focus on, not an arbitrary number.
The density at Prince Albert/Glenwood is similar to developments that have occurred elsewhere in the urban core, such as St. Joseph’s Square. The density of the project doesn’t violate any existing rules since density is set through the development agreement process under the existing plan. The density proposed is also fairly close to the contemplated ground floor area ratio (GFAR) in the Centre Plan (3.6 versus 4.2). The developer and planning staff both indicated as well in the public hearing that it is extremely unlikely they would pursue the maximum allowable 90 units. The reduction in height to seven plus penthouse means 70-80 units. Nothing in my evaluation of the project suggests that the density proposed at Prince Albert/Glenwood is excessive, resulting in negative impacts. Without clear impacts that result from the site’s density, it really is just a number.