Building Boom

More than two years ago, one of Halifax’s prominent developers was asked whether he was worried about there being too much product on the drawing board, or already underway.

His response was, “Either we are all right or we are all crazy.”

Since that time, those buildings have continued development and many more have been announced. There are dozens of large projects in peninsular Halifax, many of them in the downtown core. Some occupy an entire city block.

Are they all crazy?

Most of the buildings are residential which, if they fill up, will mean a big increase in the number of people living downtown, able to walk to work, and patronizing the restaurants, bars, stores, cultural events, and entertainment venues.

There are challenges. Families with young children will usually prefer off-peninsula alternatives where prices will be lower and single family dwellings available. They can often live close to workplaces in Burnside, Bayers Lake, or the new Eon Square office development in Bedford.

In the near term, the dust and traffic disruption from multiple construction sites is a deterrent for both residents and businesses, especially those adjacent to the $500 million Nova Centre. With other large buildings just beginning construction, it will be two to three years before the dust settles.

When it does, the downtown core will be a very attractive destination for both workers and their employers for these reasons:

  1. There is a lot of green space—the Commons, Public Gardens, Citadel Hill, and Point Pleasant Park, to name a few. And blue space—the harbour is visible from almost every building above five stories.
  2. The downtown is very walkable. What makes it attractive are the many historic buildings, the short distances between facilities, and especially the boardwalk along the ocean.
  3. Office rents are very competitive with most other cities in Canada, and there will be a plentiful supply of brand new space. Likewise, downtown condominiums and apartments are less expensive.
  4. Halifax has many excellent restaurants and a lively bar scene. When pressed, the universities will acknowledge that this is rather helpful in recruiting students.
  5. Those universities produce a steady stream of talented graduates who will stay in Halifax if satisfactory jobs are available. Salaries are a little less than Toronto or Vancouver, and much less than New York or London, reflecting lower costs of accommodations.
  6. Halifax has one of the largest concentrations of ocean scientists in the world, and a proposal for a major research and entrepreneurship facility is being advanced. There are also growing concentrations of skilled workers in financial services, and in information and communications technologies. The ship-building program will provide many long-term jobs at Irving and several sub-contractors. There is a lively start-up community.
  7. Within an hour’s drive of downtown there are many attractive and easily accessible rural and wilderness areas.

Developers attribute the downtown boom in part to the availability of many large lots, either vacant or underdeveloped, and to historically low interest rates offered by eager lenders.

Neither will help much if the buildings don’t fill up, but builders report a strong sense of optimism about the local economy. The bloom is definitely off the rose in economies heavily dependent on oil and gas such as Alberta and Newfoundland, and property is becoming extremely expensive in Toronto and Vancouver.

By comparison, Halifax looks quite attractive. Its population grew by about 4,000 per year recently, which is good, but less than the city’s hopes for the future of 7,000 or more. That kind of growth will be needed if all the new construction in the downtown core is to be occupied, and the core will have to capture a significant share. It should be a good bet.