Sunday, April 09, 2006

Will Towers Enhance Quality of Life?

UNITED GULF’S proposal to build two 27-storey buildings in downtown Halifax has drawn a lot of opposition from those who see the development as a monstrosity and support from those who see the wavy hotel and condominium towers as "world-class" additions to the Halifax skyline. The impassioned public debates both inside and outside city hall is a wonderful illustration of how much people care about downtown Halifax and its future development.

Much has been said about the economic and cultural costs and benefits of this development, and its mass, scale, density and design, but hardly any mention has been made of its implications for downtown Halifax as a community and what it says about our vision of the future of this neighbourhood.

What makes Halifax great and unique? Like so many Haligonians who have come from away, I decided to stay because I have fallen in love with this city, especially its connection to the ocean and the genuine warmth of its people. I have lived and travelled all over the world, and I believe this is what makes our city unique and wonderful — the Port of Halifax, the Northwest Arm and its maritime personality. This is what gives Halifax its soul. Our planning and development must showcase and build around these unique and fine qualities.

Furthermore, the municipal planning strategy states that the basic approach and overall objective of any development in Halifax has to be "the enhancement of the physical, social and economic well-being of the citizenry of Halifax through the preservation, creation and maintenance of an interesting and livable city, developed at a scale and density which preserve and enhance the quality of life." In other words, the cardinal principle of the strategy is that our planning and development must help create and nurture a community in Halifax and preserve and enhance the quality of life of its citizens.

We must think of Halifax not just as a destination for tourists, shoppers and workers but also as a neighbourhood and Halifax Regional Municipality as a community of communities. Neighbourhoods are important, especially to residents, but also to tourists. I have had the pleasure of visiting some of the great cities of the world, and my reasons for going there and the memories I bring back always revolve around their distinct communities and neighbourhoods.

The twisted towers, no matter how curvaceous they may be, may accommodate people but they will not enhance or foster a sense of neighbourhood in the downtown — quite the contrary. The towers, particularly their podium levels, are designed to keep in tourists and condominium residents and to draw pedestrians off the street. I am reminded of cities like Toronto and developments like the Eaton Centre. Before the construction of the centre, Yonge was one of the great walking streets in the world. The Eaton Centre was supposed to be its anchor; instead, it sucked the life out of Yonge Street. Within months of its opening, Yonge was transformed into a sleazy strip mall of dollar stores and tacky tourist and adult entertainment outlets. And the Eaton Centre itself was surrounded by enormous parking garages. Nobody wants to live or establish "one of a kind" boutiques next to these enormous buildings, but people will pay for prime parking spaces there.

Sparks Street and Rideau Street suffered a similar fate in Ottawa, and the pattern repeats itself in numerous other North American cities. If not parking lots, the surrounding area becomes an arena for schoolboy competition among developers and architects to see who is able to produce the highest erections. We see evidence of that here in Halifax with the bank towers.

The architect tells us that this project presents "an opportunity to build a signature building in downtown Halifax."

"It will be an important feature on the waterfront and the skyline."

But we already have such a building, which history, geography and the municipal planning strategy have already crowned the centrepiece — the Citadel. The Citadel is not just a heritage site. It was established as a focal point because it draws attention to our connection to the water and our roots in the age of sail and the age of empire. The United Gulf Towers, by drawing attention away from this focal point, may make Halifax "world-class" but also chip away at its uniqueness as a port city with a maritime personality.

All this is not to say that we should not have modern and unique skyscrapers downtown. This city needs more beautiful public buildings — certainly the bank towers, Scotia Square and the Maritime Mall are hardly objets d’art. For economic and ecological reasons we also need to accommodate more people downtown, and that requires high-density housing. The Spring Garden Road Business Association and the Downtown Halifax Business Commission and others are right in saying that one of the most important goals of our planning and development strategy must be to increase the number of people living downtown.

But these developments must also improve the quality of life in downtown Halifax and make it an inviting neighbourhood where people can live or come to play, work, visit or study. The warmth and community spirit of the maritime personality does not thrive if they are compartmentalized and isolated in 27-storey silos.

If our architects and developers really want to address some modern and unique challenges in creative ways and if they are really committed to enhancing and transforming downtown Halifax as a vibrant community where diverse groups of people can live or come to play, work, visit or study, why don’t we design affordable high-density mixed-use housing for students to keep our heritage homes from being converted to rooming houses?

Why don’t we build accessible accommodations for seniors and those with special needs so that they can live independent lives in our community or live with their families instead of being institutionalized in hospitals and nursing homes?

Why don’t we take on the challenge of revitalizing of Gottingen Street as a more interesting living and creative cultural space?

Why don’t we build a scaled-down version of the twin towers at the Cogswell interchange?

In conclusion, these towers and other projects, like those contemplated for the Infirmary lands, must be considered not in isolation but as part of a larger planning and development strategy built around a vision of what makes Halifax unique and attractive and what will help create and nurture a community downtown. Because this project obscures that vision of its uniqueness and does little to promote Halifax as "an interesting and livable" neighbourhood developed "at a scale and density which preserve and enhance the quality of life," I am opposed to this proposed development agreement in its current form.

Leonard Preyra is chairman of the political science department at Saint Mary’s University and the provincial NDP candidate in Halifax Citadel.


Post a Comment

<< Home