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April 22, 2008

Residents say skyscrapers are OK

By STEVE PROCTOR Business Editor
The Chronicle Herald

Halifax residents aren’t anti-growth, they are not opposed to tall buildings and they would not oppose more spending to improve the vitality of the downtown core.

Stephen Dempsey, chief executive officer of the Greater Halifax Partnership, said those are some of "the surprising findings" in a 1,400-person survey on growth in the city that Bristol Omnifacts prepared for the partnership.

"Given the tone of the public discussion in recent months and the fact that there hasn’t been a new office tower built in the city for a generation, some people are assuming residents must be anti-development and opposed to tall buildings," Mr. Dempsey said. "In fact, that’s not the case at all."

Only four per cent of the people surveyed believe growth is bad, he told a business luncheon Monday. The majority not only support the idea of growth but believe further investment in the core would have spin-off benefits that would be good for them personally, their community and their neighbourhood.

Mr. Dempsey said most people are not opposed to tall buildings, but to bad design. He said the survey indicated that the younger the respondents were and the closer they lived to downtown, the more likely they were to support tall buildings. Older people living farther away from downtown were the most opposed to tall buildings.

According to the partnership’s figures, Mr. Dempsey said the city needs an extra 1.6 million square feet of space to accommodate growth downtown over the next 10 years, and he believes the only way to get it is to build taller, more architecturally interesting buildings.

Capping building heights has been a point of contention for months as the city moves toward approving a development strategy for the downtown. Some developers have complained that restricting building heights to 10 or 12 storeys would destroy the economics of projects and lead to a boring skyline, but heritage groups, principally the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, have argued that the new limits would put 120 heritage properties at risk. The trust believes the downtown core has plenty of room for mid-scale development, and tall buildings should be relegated to an area that could be developed if the Cogswell interchange is demolished.

Mr. Dempsey said older, well-organized interest groups have received a disproportionate amount of attention in the downtown debate and he suggested city officials should listen to young people, who will be vital in filling vacancies as baby boomers retire.

He said young people want to work and live downtown but "if they can’t find the economic benefits here, they will find them in a downtown somewhere else."

Danny Chedrawe, president of Westwood Developments, called the Greater Halifax Partnership study "shameful propaganda." He said the agency uses the numbers to link tall buildings to keeping the downtown vibrant and livable, but the two are unrelated.

Mr. Chedrawe, a supporter of mid-sized development, said one big office tower project would suck up demand for years, potentially leaving more storefronts and offices empty. And if the economics for such a project were in place, he contends, several buildings approved under the old rules would be buzzing with construction activity.

"They’re not, because the economics aren’t there," he said.

If the city was serious about bringing more people downtown, it would improve infrastructure, develop new transportation strategies, ponder low-income housing initiatives and press the Waterfront Development Corp. to make the harbourfront more accessible, he said.

Mr. Chedrawe said he supports the HRM by Design plan as presented, not because it’s a good plan but because it’s at least a plan.

"At least there is some guidance," he said. "It doesn’t leave us wandering around in limbo like we have been for the past number of years."

Residents’ comments on the plan mailed to HRM by Design, P.O. Box 1749, Halifax, B3J 3A5, or e-mailed to halifax.ca must be received by Wednesday.

( herald.ca)