Giving a Good Cause a Bad Name

One of Halifax’s great assets is its history, which is widely reflected in the feel of the downtown core. The buildings and the way the streets and public spaces connect provide a walkable and entirely inviting ambience. We are fortunate to be spared the sterile canyons found in downtown Toronto or Calgary.

Many citizens of Halifax care deeply about preserving that historical character. They were galvanized to form the Heritage Trust in 1959 by the destruction of a vintage house in the south end. The purpose was to prevent the further eradication of important historical buildings. One of the major successes was the preservation and restoration of the Historic Properties area which led to a revitalization of the waterfront.

The commitment to preservation is embodied in a number of Halifax’s planning documents and bylaws. As well the city has a Heritage Advisory Committee to help Council think about appropriate responses to development proposals.

Renewed development of the downtown core is also very important; preserving our historical character does not mean that the downtown has to become a museum. The many empty or underemployed lots provide considerable opportunity for new buildings where Haligonians can live, work, and play. And commute on foot.

The Nova Centre is a massive construction project emerging from a deep hole below Citadel Hill.  As well as a convention centre it will include some or all of hotel, office, commercial, and residential components. The project is generating work for lots of different trades, including lawyers.

Heritage Trust is seeking a judicial review of the city’s decision to approve the project. It argues that HRM’s processes did not follow its own rules, and that the planned buildings will have inappropriate sightlines, wind effects, and shading impacts on heritage buildings.

In response Rank Inc., the builder, is suing Heritage Trust and its officers and directors for being a nuisance. Rank’s economics are threatened by the judicial review. The work they have already done contemplates above ground structures that Heritage Trust wants to see redesigned. Delays will add to construction costs and make tenant acquisition more difficult.

The decision to sue Heritage Trust and its leaders is arguably heavy handed. It says something about the dwindling franchise of the organization that there has not been an outpouring of support.

Creating expensive obstacles for developers is a favoured tactic of Heritage Trust. The HRM by Design process seeks to find a reasonable balance between heritage and development needs. It was strongly opposed by Heritage Trust, especially because it makes it more difficult to launch litigation of the type begun against the Nova Centre.

In its formative years Heritage Trust gave voice to the concerns of many Haligonians. They did not like to see whole districts of historical buildings knocked down to make room for roadways, or tall buildings with unfriendly streetscapes.

But practices have changed considerably over the last five decades. Developers understand that they need to be open to community input. The convention centre was given a wholesale redesign after hearing public disdain for the below grade ballroom. The developer of 22 Commerce Square proposes to preserve the exteriors of four affected heritage buildings, and both the exterior and interior of a fifth.

None of this is good enough for today’s Heritage Trust. Instead they dismiss as “facadism” the efforts to maintain the look and feel of historic buildings while allowing interior changes.

Few Haligonians are bothered if an unseen labyrinth of small offices and narrow corridors is replaced by bright and airy new layouts. Those who work there rather like it. Neither do citizens mind if a bit of roofline four stories above street level is amended to accommodate building additions.

Nevertheless Heritage Trust opposes 22 Commerce Square, and likewise opposed the Waterside Centre. Once they decide a project does not meet their requirements the opposition is tenacious.

The Nova Centre did not involve the demolition of any historic buildings. So to get traction in the latest legal battle they have resorted to arguing about process details, and about wind and shadow impacts on designated heritage buildings at other addresses. Most of the named buildings (St. Mary’s Basilica for example) are more than a block away.  The wind and shadow issues were already considered by the city’s expert design review committee which gave its approval.

If the review finds the decision process to be defective the city can and will just redo it, making sure to follow its own rules more closely, or to change them as necessary. Not even the most ardent opponents of the project believe that it is going to be stopped altogether.

On July 2nd a group of over 300 community leaders, acting independently of Rank Inc., purchased  a full page of the Chronicle Herald urging Heritage Trust to stop being so obstructionist. Their text did not show much sensitivity to heritage considerations.

What should greatly worry the leaders of Heritage Trust is not the lawsuit by Rank. Rather it is this stark evidence that they no longer speak for a broad group of fellow citizens.

They have lost touch with a public whose support they need to be effective. They are giving a good cause a bad name.