This column was first published in the Halifax Examiner May 28, 2018.
Last week, Halifax City Council again/still/always decided to re-re-re-write its planning bylaws on the fly for the greater good and increased profit of a private developer whose books it didn’t bother examining, let alone asking to glimpse once, maybe upside down on the desk, perhaps even just in passing.
Jump? How high, sir, how high?… Good dog.
This story again/still/always is about the Armoyans’ Armco proposal for a high-as-they-can-make-it skyscraper at the corner of Robie and Quinpool Road. If you want to know more about the history of how we/they got to this point, check out here and here and here.
But let’s start today with last week. Council had asked staff “prepare amendments to the Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy and Peninsula Land Use Bylaw to incorporate within the draft amendments included within the January 20, 2017 staff report.”
Whew. Long history shorter. City council had said yes to a 20-storey tower. The developer said that’s not high, or good enough for us. Let us make it 25 and we’ll toss you the PR bone of 10 affordable housing units among our 200 or so unaffordable ones.
Never mind that if the city’s overdue draft Centre Plan had actually been in place for this project, the developer would have been expected to provide the equivalent of 36 affordable units worth $3.2 million instead of 10 — a public benefit valued by extrapolation at just $900,000 — to get council approval for those extra five storeys.
Like I said, the housing was just a PR bone. For which councillors obligingly wagged their tails.
To make it all seem legit, councillors eventually tossed in a few caveat “demands,” including requiring that “overhead electric/utility wires be buried along the Quinpool Road and Robie Street boundaries of the development.”
Undergrounding, as it’s called, isn’t only aesthetically more pleasing than a tangle of poles and sky-polluting wiring. It can also help cut down on the number of power outages caused by wind and weather.
According to a recent five-year reliability report prepared for the Florida Public Service Commission, for example, Florida Light & Power reported that the 40 per cent of its customers who are now served by underground wiring suffered “significantly” fewer outages and were without power for shorter periods of time per outage than their fellow overhead customers.
The benefits of undergrounding are not exactly a recent revelation. According to a 1962 report by the American Society of Planning Officials: “The Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities… actively promotes underground wiring, not only in new subdivisions, but also in downtown areas and older residential neighborhoods, where the Federation urges the gradual burying of existing overhead systems.” Or so it says.
In fact, as last week’s Halifax staff report noted, the city’s own Municipal Planning Strategy’s draft Development Agreement policy already:
“requires that all electric and utility wires adjacent to the development shall be buried along Quinpool Road and Robie Street. This is not a stipulation of Bonus Zoning, and would be a requirement of the development whether it was constructed to a maximum overall height of 62 metres or 78 metres.”
Uh… In other words, this was not really a concession by the developer at all, but a requirement of the process.
The staff report then went on to note:
“In conversations with the applicant, their engineers in coordination with NS Power staff have indicated that undergrounding overhead wire in this location may be problematic.”
Well, it seems that Nova Scotia Power — the private electricity monopoly prone to inordinate numbers of power outages caused by salty fogs, stiff breezes and other “unanticipated” acts of life — isn’t keen to prioritize the opportunity offered by a major new development to speed along its own “current planning to facilitate undergrounding.”
Despite the long-term benefits for customers and, ultimately, the utility, undergrounding is expensive in the short term, and Nova Scotia Power would apparently rather increase immediate payouts to shareholders than invest for that long term… But that’s another one of those columns for another day.
So Nova Scotia Power doesn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to goose its own undergrounding plans, and the developer doesn’t want to fulfill its requirement to bury the cables.
Which brings us to the convenient out offered in the staff report:
“At the direction of Council, undergrounding of overhead wire is currently required in the draft MPS policy. Should it be the desire of Council to remove this requirement from the policy, it is most easily done at the time of first reading of the policy to ensure clarity exists in advance of a Public Hearing as to the requirements of the policy under consideration.”
When faced with the choice of good planning for citizens versus convenient planning for developers, council knows how high it will jump. Higher.
After a 90-minute debate, followed by a two-hour closed-door meeting between top city officials and a representative of the developer — no, you really can’t make this stuff up! — council voted 13–3 in favour of a staff-massaged, Armco-blessed motion to give the developer a myriad of options to much-less-than-meet what would have been its obligations under the Centre Plan and the Municipal Planning Strategy.
- Armco can bury the power lines and include 10 affordable housing units in its project;
- Armco can include 20 affordable units, and skip the wiring entirely;
- Armco can include the 10 units, and pay $900,000 into a non-existent affordable housing fund in lieu of wiring;
- Armco can say screw the housing altogether, and pay the city $1.8 million into that same non-fund.
But… wait a minute? Where did the $900,000 figure come from, and what does it have to do with the price of underground wiring? Simply put, the $900,000 relates to the extrapolated cost of affordable housing units, and it has nothing to do with wiring.
In fact, it still isn’t clear how much the wiring itself would cost. When Coun. Shawn Cleary naively suggested the developer simply trade off the actual cost of undergrounding for numbers of affordable housing units, CAO Jacques Dube shot that idea through the heart. Making Armco do that, he suggested, would “literally kill the project.”
But let’s ask once again: how much would undergrounding have cost?
No answer. Has the city asked to inspect the developer’s financials or subjected them to careful analysis? Or is the city simply accepting the developer’s claims at face value?
“We’re in the business of regulating the use of land,” Dubé declared, even though it is clear the city has turned much of the heavy lifting on that score over to the developers. “Financial considerations,” he added, “are really the business of business.”
Which means city council’s job is…?