Views / Halifax

Opinion | Tristan Cleveland: For the Centre Plan density with the fewest towers is best

Halifax has to strike a balance between keeping heights manageable and not pushing development to suburbs.

A mid-rise example: The rendering for the Bayers + Young development in Halifax that proposes a five storey building facing Bayers Road, and a three storey building facing Young Street.

WM Fares Architects

A mid-rise example: The rendering for the Bayers + Young development in Halifax that proposes a five storey building facing Bayers Road, and a three storey building facing Young Street.

What height is right for Halifax buildings?

I believe the Centre Plan broadly takes the right approach, setting 3-to-6 story height limits in most places, and allowing 20-story towers in just a few. Some express worry, however, that if the Centre Plan isn’t more flexible with height, it will just push new residents out into sprawl developments at the edge of the city - a legitimate concern.

Happily, one of the top urban planners in Canada is about to weigh in on the debate. The Urban Development Institute, an organization representing industry, has hired Jennifer Keesmaat, former Chief Planner of Toronto, to conduct an outside peer review of how the plan might be improved.

“My approach has always been to recognize at the outset that density is good,” Keesmaat told me during a visit to Halifax last Thursday. “You need great design, but density is good when you have great design.”

On this topic, I am decidedly conflicted. Keesmaat is right most criticisms of density are bogus. Yet, I believe if we can achieve density with six-story buildings, it will create more of a happier, sunnier city than towers can offer.  

Before I express concerns about towers, I want to express why most criticisms I hear about density in Halifax are wrong. People claim that density makes traffic worse, the streets more dangerous, and homes less affordable. The opposite is true on all points.

In high-density areas of Halifax, overtwo-thirds of people walk or bike to work. Traffic isn’t caused by people living in towers downtown; it’s caused by people living in detached homes far away where they have no option but to drive.

A scary street is one with no one on it, a problem that adding people helps solve. And as long as new buildings increase housing supply, they make the city more affordable. Every wealthy person who buys an expensive condo is one less person driving up prices on other homes.

Density brings more customers to businesses, more bums in seats at cultural events, more people using transit. It is a powerful force for good.

And so, Keesmaat tells me, the goal should be, “the most density you can accommodate,” as long as we can protect what we care about, things like, “sky view, view corridors, and creating a high-quality public realm.” As long as towers are thin and have low street walls, and don’t cast shadows on critical places like parks, the idea is they just improve the city.

And so I thought, until I saw first-hand that the streets around new towers in Vancouver and Toronto — towers that follow all this modern best practice — still feel pretty bleak.

The negative impacts towers have on shadow, wind, and human scale can be reduced, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Until we invent invisible buildings, those impacts can’t be eliminated. Density is good, and towers can be good, but density without towers is best.

If we allow 20-story buildings everywhere, we won’t get much but 20-story buildings. If someone can sell their land for millions of dollars because a tall building is possible there, they will ask for millions of dollars, and a six-story building just won’t make sense.

Halifax residents want more choices than towers and sprawl. So here’s the tightrope we have to walk: restrict height limits to foster mid-rise development, but don’t restrict it so much that we end up pushing people out of the core.

We’re lucky to have one of the best planners in the country help us walk that rope. We have to get this right.

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