It was a packed house at Harbour East Community Council last night. On Council’s agenda was a proposal to build a nine storey building at the corner of Prince Albert Road and Glenwood Avenue at the Walker’s Funeral Home property. You might recall that back in 2012, Harbour East Council rejected a 15 storey development for the site. The rejection was appealed to the Utility and Review Board, but the Board ultimately upheld Council’s decision. The developer went off and redesigned his project and brought forward a new application for nine storeys in 2015, which is what Council was considering last night. The nine story building is six floors shorter than the original proposal for this site, but the number of units was almost the same: to keep the unit count up, the building is wider and has more one bedrooms. Council’s job was to assess the staff report, Dartmouth Planning rules, and hear from the developer and the public in making a decision.
At the public hearing, many of the comments about the proposal focused on the Centre Plan. The Centre Plan is the upcoming plan and development regulations that will revise the rules in the Regional Centre (Peninsula Halifax and Old Dartmouth). The Grahams Grove area is designated a “corridor” in the Centre Plan. Corridors are generally mixed-use areas, around busy streets, with underused land that have been identified as suitable for moderate density (4-6 storeys). There has been extensive public consultation as part of the Centre Plan and many of the speakers last night asked Council to stick to the Plan’s framework. It was very heartening to see the wide-spread community support for the Centre Plan.
One of the Centre Plan’s most important contributions to planning and development in our city will be certainty: certainty for residents about what can be built in their neighbourhood and certainty for developers about what they can do with their land. Right now, there isn’t good guidance for anyone. Our planning rules date back to the 1970s and they put a very low limit on what can be done as-of-right. The built in expectation in the existing plan is that property owners will apply for more (a development agreement is required for any residential building of more than three units in Dartmouth). For developers, there is often very little guidance on how much is too much. When that planning process is triggered, nearby residents understandably interpret the planning application as the developer asking Council for special treatment to break the rules. This isn’t the fault of residents. They should have certainty about what can happen in their neighbourhood. It shouldn’t be a guessing game for anyone. The whole process is divisive and labour intensive and I’m glad we’re moving away from it with the Centre Plan.
The challenge for Council is that the Centre Plan hasn’t been passed yet and the previous Council rejected a development freeze. So Council has to continue to assess projects that come forward and it has to do so under the current rules. The situations at Prince Albert and Glenwood differs from the Willow Tree that I have previously written about because Prince Albert and Glenwood doesn’t require a plan amendment, just a rezoning and development agreement. The actual Dartmouth Municipal Plan doesn’t need to be changed to allow this development, just the zoning. Plan amendments are 100% optional for Council to consider and I have been vocal in my opposition to considering amendments that are outside the Centre Plan’s framework when Council has the authority to do so. Rezoning requests aren’t in the same category though. It is Council’s duty to consider the nine storey Prince Albert and Glenwood proposal in context of the current plan rather than what might be enacted later and if Council fails to do that, the decision can be overturned at the Utility and Review Board.
Compatibility (height, mass, and scale):
There were many arguments made last night about wind and traffic, but what I found the most persuasive were the objections to the height, bulk and scale of the proposed building. The existing Dartmouth Plan requires that Council consider the compatibility of development with the surrounding area when evaluating zoning and development agreements. The staff report indicated that the building’s height was at the very upper range of what the planning department could support (at 10 storeys their recommendation would have been no). Compatibility is a somewhat subjective call though. It’s a range and open to some interpretation.
While the proposed building does a lot right to try and minimize the impact of its size, like stepping down its height along Glenwood and including a buffer between it and the neighbouring property, it still felt to me like trying to cram to many units into too small a space. The developer’s presentation referenced other develoments in Dartmouth, such as the recently approved project at the corner of Wyse and Pelzant, but the context between Lake Banook and Wyse Road is very different. The tallest building in the area around Prince Albert and Glenwood is Banook Shores, which reaches five storeys at its highest point. The general area is mostly three to four storey buildings. Nine storeys would be a significant departure from what currently exists in the neighbourhood and would be particularly out-of-scale with the modest 1.5 storey houses on Glenwood Avenue.
The other issue of compatibility concerns Lake Banook. There is a long history of Council saying no to contentious developments around Lake Banook, particularly on the Grahams Grove side. Council has previously rejected 12 storeys at the old YWCA site, 7 storeys at Paddler’s Cove and, of course, 15 storeys on the previous Prince Albert and Glenwood property. In 2005, a 35 foot height limit around Lake Banook was mapped out by planning staff and approved by Council. The height limit followed property lines and took into account the shape of the land so it didn’t follow the 500 foot setback exactly. In some places it goes well beyond 500 feet while in other places it is less than 500 feet from the Lake. It varies. The Prince Albert and Glenwood property is just outside the height limit approved by the 2005 Council.
The question of compatibility comes into what’s an appropriate transition from the height limits around Lake Banook to the surrounding area? Is it reasonable that the sky’s the limit just on the other side of the road? I don’t think it is. 35 feet is about four storeys, meaning the proposed bulding was more than double the height limit that applies just across the street. Past Council’s have been clear that Lake Banook is worth special consideration due to the canoe course and the great recreational and aesthetic value of the Lake and its environment. I don’t think the proposed nine storey building passed the test of compatibility.
I pride myself on trying to be constructive at Council. It’s not enough for me to just say no, I try to say no while also outlining what I would accept. I asked the developer after the public had their say if the 9 storey proposal was his bottom line. He indicated that he was open to taking a second look. So I put forward a motion for a supplemental report directing staff to explore a six storey building with the developer. Six storeys would be very much in line with what currently exists in the neighbourhood and would be even less likely to generate any wind. Included in my motion was a requirement to maintain an appropriate transition to the surrounding neighbourhood. In other words, the developer will likely have to give up some units to shrink the size of the building to six, not just sprawl outward. Six would also meet what the community expectation is through the Centre Plan, but, more importantly, would be compatible with the surrounding buildings, none of which exceed 5 storeys. Council accepted my motion 4-1 (Councillor Hendsbee in opposition), which meant that a resolution for this proposal will have to wait until the New Year.
I know for residents who came out wanting an answer last night that having to wait until the New Year is frustrating. It would likely have been better politics for me to have stamped my foot, and just voted no. I didn’t because I’m not convinced that was the way to go to produce the best outcome. There is value in seeing the old funeral home redeveloped and most speakers supported a reasonably scaled building. The process is cumbersome, but it strikes me that trying to find something that works is worth a little inconvenience in what has been a 7 year long saga. So I put forward what I think is reasonable based on the existing policy requirements around compatibility and the community feedback at the public hearing.
So What Happens Next:
Since I made my motion and Council supported it, staff and the developer will now work to see if an agreement can be reached on a six storey building. Staff will then report back to Harbour East Community Council, possibly in January, with the results of those discussions. My expectation is that the report back to Council will go one of two ways: there will either be a new smaller proposal which would likely necessitate a new public hearing (HRM legal will no doubt weigh in on that) or the developer won’t be able/willing to reduce the size of his building and Council will have to vote on the existing nine storey proposal instead. If it comes to it, as I stated last night, my vote on 9 storeys is no due the building being incompatible with its surroundings and, therefore, not in agreement with the Dartmouth Municipal Planning Strategy. Stay tuned for more on where this one goes in the New Year.