Andrew Burke

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A Better View of Downtown Halifax
Posted on: 2010-11-09

As I write this, Halifax City Council is meeting to discuss their plans for the new Convention Centre in downtown Halifax. There has been a lot of activity on the Convention Centre front in the last week or so since I last wrote about downtown Halifax:

  • The developer, Joe Ramia of Rank Group, has finally come out of silence and has certainly done a much better job of selling the convention centre than the various city and provincial politicians have. The mayor certainly liked it!!

  • Texas-based (and with a name like that how could he not be?) urbanism expert Heywood Sanders gave several presentations yesterday on what a bad idea convention centres tend to be - his evening talk was so popular it had to move to a bigger venue.

  • The Provincial government gave their proposal for cost and revenue sharing to the city - a proposal that included things like not paying any taxes and forcing the city to buy the old Convention Centre. This, and the lack of action against their backbenchers who have come out opposed to the project, strikes me as a passive-aggressive way to fulfill back-room promises while also passing of the blame for it failing off to someone else (maybe the Federal conservatives, who don't like us anyhow).

  • Just this morning, it came out that Ramia has backup plans in place if the government funding doesn't come through. These include a set of lower buildings, within the height limits specified by HRM by Design, built in multiple phases. He even admits that "the alternate plans would actually make him more money and involve less risk."

Anyhow, there are plenty of other places to find out the blow-by-blow of this debate. What I want to do here is describe a vision of how downtown Halifax might look in a few years, if everything works out okay. Some of these ideas are based on plans that have actually come forward, others are more pie-in-the-sky - but a vision of an ideal future can help set opinions and make decisions in the present.

  • A combination of public opposition and intra-governmental bickering kills the funding for the Convention Centre, so Rank ends up building a set of smaller buildings on the prime downton lands: office space, a nice hotel with great views of the harbour, and condos with even nicer views. The buildings don't block the view of Georges Island from the Citadel. They're also nicely designed to enhance the skyline, not dominate the streetscape, and have good retail spaces on the ground floor. Both sides of Argyle fill with bars and restaurants and patios.

  • The Starfish properties on Barrington will finally get reworked. The vintage street-fronts will be kept, but they'll be completely redone inside and new multi-storey levels will be built on top. The buildings will include a mix of condominiums and nice offices.

  • With all these new condominiums on Barrington, Argyle, and Market streets, the old downtown becomes a live-work nexus. Higher-quality shops, boutiques, and gourmet grocery stores open. Yes it's quite gentrified, but it's not like Barrington wasn't a rich street before.

  • Speaking of gentrification, the old Sam the Record Man building becomes the eastern-most outpost of the Apple Store, catering to all of the yuppies and creative professionals who live and work around there now.
    Shooped mockup of the Apple Store Barrington

  • Some of the money the municipal and provincial governments saved by not funding a convention centre goes to support small retail operations and independent galleries and restaurants in the new downtown core, to keep the neighbourhood lively and arts-friendly.

  • A special fund goes specifically to new SMU/NSCAD/NSCC/Dal graduates to start their own businesses after graduation rather than simply leaving town

  • The city eventually does get a convention centre built - it even has a high-rise tower above it. Nobody complains, though, because they build it on top of the current site of the Cogswell Interchange, an area that, frankly, could only be improved by something new. The tall towers don't block any more view that isn't already blocked, and the new centre connects through walkways and/or tunnels to Scotia Square, the Purdy's Wharf Towers, and, most importantly for the convention business, the Casino.

  • The empty tarpaper rooftops of Scotia Square become landscaped gardens, while the increased population living nearby brings the mall back to its early-70s splendour.

  • The city becomes known for its ability to combine respect for its past (since it has so much notable history) with a forward-looking attitude.

  • The quarter million tourists who come by cruise ship every year find the downtown fantastically exciting and dynamic.

  • More people start living here simply because of the quality of life (a lot do this already, but with a human-scale, vibrant downtown, there would be more), bringing their businesses with them.

  • Halifax becomes sort of an Eastern-Canadian version of Portland Oregon - known for its great lifestyle, hip arts/music scene, vibrant startup/entrepreneurship community, and its high quality local beers (although we're doing really well on that front already).

  • My last wish for the city, although it's unlikely: the Halifax Metro Centre has a major make-over, and its Brunswick, Duke, and Carmichael fronts are all changed from concrete brutalism to something more visually interesting.

I haven't even mentioned what happens to the south end along Spring Garden, with the awesome-looking new library and the upgraded Fenwick complex and a lot of new condo building going on there as well - or the harbourfront with the new developments near King's Landing and the new Market - or Gottigen, managing to strike a balance between hipster galleries and the Sally-Ann.

Just adding my thoughts to the discussion. Let me know what you think.

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