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Mountains out of molehills: how luxury condos impact Halifax’s North End

November 24, 2016

Halifax residents are concerned about the rise of luxury condo developments in Halifax’s economically diverse North End.

According to a council recommendation from July 19 submitted by WM Fares Group, the empty lot on the corner of Roberts and Maynard Street might be replaced with an eight-storey condominium complex.

“They want it first. And they want it now. They’re kind of like bullies,” Peggy Cameron says. Cameron is a member of the Willow Tree Group.

Members of Willow Tree Group have been outspoken against condominium developments in the North End. The group is made up of concerned homeowners near Quinpool Road and Robie Street.

Cameron says that councillors have a role in regulating developments in the city, but they’ve been privileging developer plans over the concerns of local residents.

“City development is too intensive and too aggressive,” Cameron says.

There are currently 19 development proposals for Halifax and Dartmouth’s downtown core, according to Halifax Regional Planning and Development.

Willow Tree Group has asked council to delay a public hearing for the WM Fares Group development planning proposal on Maynard Street. The group claims that the eight-storey residential building is “out of scale” in the two-storey neighbourhood. However, council voted to move forward with the hearing.

Cameron and her group claims that high-rise, luxury condominiums have economic, social and environmental implications that could deteriorate the standard of living for local residents.

“Developers are privatizing your right to have access to sunlight and clean air,” Cameron says.

The height of the building is too overbearing in the area of mix-use, small-scale residential and retail properties, she says. This means that residents will not be able to enjoy the comfort of their own privacy or adequate sunlight.

“It was like looking at the wall of a fortress – absolutely no privacy,” Cameron says regarding the nearly-complete Q Lofts building.

Q Lofts, a condominium building designed by Polycorp Group, is located across the street from the proposed development property on Maynard Street. The group’s supposed “energy-efficient, large-scale” condominium building is “98% complete”, according to Catherine Hodgson, Polycorp Group sales manager.

Maynard Street, Cameron says, is targeted by developers because of the trends they see in renting and home owning in the North End. She says that students and young professionals move to the North End because of its charm.

However, Cameron says that condo developments add value to the surrounding area, which may cause landlords to increase rent costs, which may also cause low-income residents to seek cheaper housing in other neighbourhoods.

Cameron claims that there is a lack of communication from city councillors, developers and long-term residence.

“It’s a problematic process for citizen engagement. I believe a lot of citizens aren’t aware of this. And this creates an incentive for developers to push councillors to make decisions,” Cameron says.

“I am not against everything. But I am so disappointed by this city because there are so many missed opportunities.”

Cameron says there are two solutions. First, she suggests that city hall put a moratorium on development agreements until after the Centre Plan is complete.

According to Halifax Regional Planning and Development, the Centre Plan aims to create “sustained economic, environmental and social benefits” to reflect HRM’s current conditions. The plan seeks to cater new developments to the needs and concerns of local residents.

Second, Cameron asks council to slow down completion of the Centre Plan because citizens are not as engaged or informed as they ought to be.

“Developments in this city are too fast, too quick and too dirty. And I am skeptical,” Cameron says.

Cesar Saleh, WM Fares Group vice president of planning and design, says that it is a common misconception that WM Fares Group is the project’s development company.

“We are a consultation service. We design the buildings that our clients, the developers, want to build in the city.”

Saleh refuses to divulge the name of WM Fares Group’s client. However, according to Nova Scotia Property Online, Maynard Holdings Limited owns the proposed development property at 2480 Maynard Street. Property documents show that Maynard Holdings Limited took ownership of the property in 2012.

Although WM Fares Group provides a service to the property’s developers, they nonetheless play a role in the planning and design of the project.

WM Fares Group claims that the intent of the development project is to “increase vibrancy” of the “rhythmic” low-rise neighbourhood. According to recommendations to city council, WM Fares Group claims that the current state of Maynard Street “breaks-up” the “vibrant” neighbourhood due to empty lots and automotive services. They hope that their project will “re-stitch” the fabric of this community.

According to Polycorp Group, the prices of Q Lofts condo units range from $299 900 to $474 900. Compared to condos in The Trillium building on South Park Street, Q Lofts prices are relatively cheap. Property records show that the most valuable condo unit in The Trillium costs $1.7 million.

However, statistics show that residents of Maynard Street and surrounding areas may not be able to afford even the cheapest condo units in the city.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 40.6% of the population living in the area of Maynard and Roberts Street, make less than Statistics Canada’s low-income measure. According to Statistics Canada, the low-income measure is $19 460 for one-person households.

Local business owners say developments in the North End may be more beneficial than residents think.

“It makes me so happy and I am hopeful for the future,” Ian Fraser says. Fraser owns Obsolete Records on Agricola Street.

Born and raised in the North End, Fraser thought that the possibility of opening a record store in his neighbourhood would be a challenge.

However, after maintaining his business for six years, Fraser is optimistic of Halifax’s future cityscape. He says business developments in the North End has made his striving business possible.

“There was an Obsolete Records before new developments and there will be an Obsolete Records after they are complete,” Fraser said.

Fraser hasn’t heard any complaints from regular customers. However, he is concerned that new condominiums will change the area’s demographic.

“New condo developments could have an impact on the class diversity here in the North End. But, you have to be hopeful.”

Fraser says that the majority of his customers are university students and young professionals. He fears that the driving costs of rent might push students away.

“You don’t want to change the feel of an area just because you want to build condos,” Fraser says. “Be aware. Don’t develop for the sake of development. Know the area you are going to invest your money in.”

Frasers says that local businesses and new developments are coexisting so far, regardless of fears of gentrification.

“It proves that we can exist together in one community,” Fraser says.

Halifax and West Community Council approved planning amendments for two WM Fares Group projects during a council meeting on Nov. 15, including a development proposal for a residential building on Coburg Road.

HRM’s District 8 Councillor Lindell Smith echoed Fraser’s concerns after the council meeting.

“Anything new brings something new. New development brings new people,” Smith said.

Smith says that new businesses owners have expressed excitement about new condominium developments. However, Smith is concerned about long-time and small business owners. He says they are worried that new condominiums might drive customers to more affordable locations.

“If there is no reason for developers to look at affordability, then they don’t have to do it. And we can do better than that,” Smith said.

According to Smith’s website, the councillor suggests that affordable housing in the North End can be achieved by imposing inclusionary zoning regulations on new developments to include affordable housing units for people with low-incomes.

“So far we have talked to residents and the Centre Plan has allowed for engagement and has fixed things where they have been wrong. I think it’s important that we are doing that,” Smith said.

The date of the public hearing for the Maynard Street condominium project is yet to be announced.