Andrew Burke

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Thoughts on the Nova Centre
Posted on: 2012-10-21

One of the biggest current developments in downtown Halifax is the new Nova Centre. Every step in this project has had its controversy, from the choice of location to the viability of the convention business, from getting funding from all three levels of government to dealing with street scale and Citadel viewplane issues.

A lot of the confusion and anxiety about the project has been due to the long silence from the developer and the government backers, but now that the funding hasclosed more information has been coming out about the project. This summer the Nova Centre group has staged public consultations in Halifax and across the province. I've attended two of their sessions, one in June and another just a few weeks ago where preliminary designs for the new building were revealed to the public.

I have to admit that at first I've been skeptical about the project and the consultations - but this latest event has actually made me excited about the Nova Centre and what it can do for our downtown.

Some personal context, so you can see where I'm coming from: I've spent most of my adult life in Toronto, but spent two years working in Corporate America in Columbus Ohio, where I lived downtown while all my co-workers lived in the suburbs. I moved to Halifax in 2009 and I love how it has a lively but still human-scaled downtown. I've been a long-time fan of Spacing Magazine, Jane Jacobs-style 'new urbanism', and Christopher Alexander's ideas about human-scaled architecture and city-building as he describes in "A Pattern Language". My late father had been involved in blocking the construction of the Halifax waterfront freeway back in the early 1970s.

I live near Windsor and Chebucto and I have an office in the "Manpower" building that spans the block between Barrington and Argyle. I walk to work almost every day, crossing the Common, climbing over the Citadel, and I enter my building through the patio of the Foggy Goggle. Every day I see the view of the city and the harbour from the Citadel, and a few minutes later I see the Argyle pit, where the Nova Centre will be.

I'm no politician or deal-maker or lobbyist or big influencer - I'm just a concerned citizen whose daily life will be very strongly impacted by how the Nova Centre ends up working.

At the first meeting, I felt like the organizers were trying almost too hard to seem inclusive and 'hippie': there was a noodly folk band playing and there was a lot of talk about inclusiveness and responsiveness, seeming a bit out of character for a half-billion dollar complex hoping to cater to business conferences and hedge funds. I wasn't sure how much of this was for getting actual feedback and how much was just to identify and/or pacify potential opponents. However, I really liked the architect's presentation - he seemed well aware of the same kinds of issues and concerns that I have about giant buildings like this. I remember how downtown Columbus had almost been destroyed by a "save downtown" shopping mall and a convention centre, both killing entire neighbourhoods with multiple blocks of windowless walls and large outdoor parking lots - he showed a picture of a similar project in Buffalo as an example of what he didn't want to do, so that was heartening.

The follow-up session in early October continued the slightly granola feeling with an African thumb-piano ensemble playing us in. After some introductory speeches the architect got up and, after telling us how he had re-thought the entire design after the last session, finally showed us his new plan for the Nova Centre.

And I have to admit I was impressed.

The convention centre that all the different levels of government are paying for requires two giant multi-block spaces, one as a convention floor, another as a 'ballroom'. The original design sketches had both of these underground, one end peeking out on Argyle at street level. The new design did a bold and brilliant thing: the convention level is still underground, but the ballroom is lifted up several storeys.

(You can find more at the site.)

In one stroke, this does several great things for the design:

-Opens up the space below the ballroom for shops, patios, and large open spaces, such as the planned "Grafton Plaza".
- Allows the street and sidewalk below to be wider, even providing some weather cover.
- Provides a strong defining architectural feature for the whole complex that has a street-level presence (instead of being at the top of some tower).
- The inside of the ballroom space is flooded with daylight and has spectacular views of the city, the harbour, and the Citadel all around it, making sure that visitors experience Halifax even if they spend their entire time at a convention.
- In the other direction, the surrounding city can see what's going on in the ballroom, making it part of the street life in the neighbourhood.
- The ballroom windows are level with the tops of the buildings across the street on Argyle, closing the street without overwhelming it.
- The convention-industry-dependent levels are away from street level, so if the convention centre part doesn't end up being used much, it will still be a lively, busy complex.

To be honest, I was expecting something that would be merely adequate, and now whenever I walk by the Argyle Pit, I enthusiastically try to imagine what the finished building will look like.

That doesn't mean it still might not be a mess, though. I've seen a lot of big projects go bad - and Halifax has a knack for screwing up even simple good ideas. The biggest elephant in the room is parking, more particularly the parking entrance that will have to support thousands of cars coming and going every day, not to mention lots of buses and taxis during a convention. Because of the slope of the hill, the entrance is going to have to be somewhere on Argyle street - one of the most lively streets in the HRM. The session spent a lot of time discussing Argyle, talking about how the new building will be focused on Argyle, adding new shops and patios, and even putting the grand entrance right in the middle of that block, presumably across from the Seahorse. There was even talk about making Argyle a boulevard extension of the Grand Parade - but this seems very much at odds with a giant parking entrance and the associated traffic (have you seen the back-up on Albemarle and Cogswell in the morning or before a game or show at the Metro Centre?).

The architect has proven his ingenuity with the raised ballroom design, so I hope he's thinking very hard about the parking situation. It could be the detail that decides whether this project is a good or a bad thing for the downtown. Maybe they can put the entrance just around the corner on Sackville or Prince instead? That puts all the traffic flow on wider, less pedestrian-focused streets. They could even block off Argyle at Sackville, making it a truly pedestrian boulevard. They could maybe even give up some of the ground level(s) of the complex to make Sackville or Prince a bit wider as they approach the parking area. A lot of this depends on getting the municipal government to reorganize the traffic flow, and who knows if they'd be up for that?

While it would be great to imagine a car-free downtown, where workers would live just a few blocks away and convention attendees could take a train (or monorail?) straight from the airport to downtown, that's just not our current reality - so parking and the related traffic issues are something that we'll have to figure out.

Here are some other thoughts about the project:

  • Argyle is a great street, but it also gets rowdy on weekend evenings. Will the covered Grafton Plaza be open at this time? Will it fill with vomit and beer bottles? How long before someone gets killed under there? In general, I think the whole covered area will have to be curated carefully to keep it lively and happy. Bright lights, pedestrian traffic, and security are perhaps more important than architecture for a space like that - I hope those are all in the plans and, more importantly, the budget.

  • As someone who commutes on foot all year round and in all kinds of weather, I would love it if there was some kind of pedestrian access through the complex from Market Street all the way to Argyle. Underground or overground connections to the old Convention Centre and Scotia Square (and thus all the way to the Casino) would be great - through the Prince George Hotel maybe? While we're at it, will the public have access to the great views from the ballroom level when there isn't an event on? A restaurant or even a free public viewing area in there would be cool.

  • Speaking of restaurants, my experience in places like Toronto is that new developments all promise to have street-level retail and dining, but that this usually ends up being large franchises like Starbucks or TGIFridays, or relatively boring spaces like dry cleaners or drug stores, while the lively interesting retail often happens on older streets with smaller stores and easier rents. I think at least some of the retail slots in the new complex should be quite small so that their rents are manageable (artificially subsidized rents might also work, but small footprints would do the same thing without extra regulations).

  • On the other hand, I think a key to changing downtown into a living neighbourhood instead of just a working neighbourhood would be to have some kind of larger grocery store in there. A Sobey's or maybe even a Pete's Frootique could totally change that part of town. Someone at my table suggested a local market or something like that - with the Wooden Monkey and the new French bakery on Prince, this could become a gourmet corner.

  • The session focused on the streetscape rather than the towers, although what I saw looked interesting and seemed to be arranged cleverly to limit how much they blocked the view from the Citadel. The towers could still be problematic - I just got into an argument a few days ago over the ludicrously over-tall Skye project, so perhaps I'm biased. I like what I saw but it's still hard to tell at this point.

  • The multi-block hillside location of the complex, where the Argyle level is two or more storeys below the Market level, provides many opportunities for interesting terraces, overlooks, and patios. I really hope the rooftop of the ballroom level is landscaped and publicly accessible.

There's another presentation event coming up later this week and I'm looking forward to finding out more about this project. It's an exciting time to be in Halifax, and I think we won't recognize downtown in another decade - I just hope it's in a good way rather than a bad way.

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