City council, the developer, and the deal that isn’t quite

The latest version of the proposed Willow Tree Tower. APL Properties Limited

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner March 26, 2018.

Halifax City Council can be — even at its best of times — confusing, contradictory, confounding. Last week, council was not, even by its own modest standards, at its best.

Councillors were considering again/still/always a proposal from APL, an Armoyan development company, to erect a commercial-residential tower at the corner of Robie Street and Quinpool Road overlooking — some say overshadowing — the iconic Halifax Common.

You may remember this project: the one that began in 2014 as a developer’s dream of twin towers, one 22, the other 11 storeys, which staff nixed for being too tall, too big and too dense.

So the developer returned with — wait for it — a bigger, better idea:  a 28-storey tower paired with a 12-storey little-brother edifice.

Uh, OK…

But then APL amended that before council could consider it, proposing instead one 29-storey skyscraper.

Are you following the bouncing roof lines?

Anyway, the former council said yes, thank you very much. But then in 2016 the old council was replaced by the new council, which said no, thanks all the same. The new council championed a 20-storey version, which it said would better adhere with “planning principles set out in the draft Centre Plan.” (Don’t ask. It’s been “draft” forever.)

In January 2018, the no-longer new council sent its scaled-down 20-storey version to a public hearing, but the developer pre-empted discussion of that option by ambling back to the gambling table with yet another can’t-refuse offer: APL would see council’s 20 storeys and raise it five. And, oh yes, if council let the company have those five extra storeys, well, then APL would throw in 10 units of “affordable” housing among its 200 or so less affordable ones. Gratis, more or less. Mostly less.

So, council then instructed staff to consider the developer’s “density bonus” option and report back. Which it did last week. Staff still found APL’s proposal wanting. Stick with the 20-storey option, staff said.

So council — as is its wont — ignored the staff report and…

Headline writers tried, without much success, to capture what happened next. Willow Tree Tower proposal still up in the air, declared the Chronicle Herald; Even taller building under consideration for Robie and Quinpool, pronounced the CBC; Council trades Willow Tree height for (some) affordable housing, teased The Coast. Metro may have captured the meeting’s je-ne-sais-qua best: ‘The epitome of ad hocery:’ Halifax council sends taller Willow Tree development to new public hearing.

To be fair, Metro’s headline writer had cribbed its “ad hocery” line from Coun. Sam Austin who, in fact, had summed everything up even more succinctly in another comment to his fellow councillors. “Geez, it’s messy, folks.”

Indeed.

After a series of motions, Coun. Shawn Cleary introduced yet another one, this motion instructing staff to rewrite city bylaws so the developer would be required to set aside those 10 affordable units (the ones it was itself already proposing to set aside), install underground wiring and widen sections of the sidewalk around the building.

It appeared Cleary may have had an advance chat with APL’s Joaquim Stroink since his motion nicely mirrored the additional plus-pluses Stroink claimed the developer already had in mind. “We looked at [underground wiring and wider sidewalks] to see, ‘can we do them,’ and we feel we can do them at this time,” Stroink said.

Interesting.

So… APL is good with the deal. And council is good with the deal, having voted 14–2 in favour of Cleary’s motion.

But should we be good with the deal?

That’s a more complicated question.

One argument in favour of the deal is that it would create at least some affordable housing units. Despite council’s best intentions, Cleary pointed out, not one affordable housing unit has been built since the new council was sworn in in 2016.

And yet…

“If the Centre Plan was in place today,” mused Coun. Tim Outhit, “and the developer came to us and wanted to build 20 storeys, potentially what number of affordable units would be in that development? Is there a risk that… when the Centre Plan is passed we may actually have fewer affordable units by voting this path than waiting for the Centre Plan?”

Yup.

As Jacob Boon pointed out in The Coast, the draft Centre Plan does include a formula to calculate how much “public value” a developer should provide the city in exchange for being permitted to build bigger. Under that formula, APL should be providing $3.27 million worth of public benefit — or the equivalent of 36 affordable housing units.

Even if you toss in underground wiring and wider sidewalks, that’s a lot of affordable housing not being provided under the Cleary formula.

Cleary didn’t call for the maximum density bonusing formula, Metro reports “because he doesn’t think the math would work out for APL…”

Council continues to confound. Or not.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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