Citizens for Halifax – The city that always says no

From The Halifax Chronical Herald
Halifax was once considered cool, but now we’re chasing away singers and developers. Has the capital lost its cachet?


By MICHAEL TUTTON The Canadian Press Sun. Dec 23 – 5:55 AM


IT’S BEEN a year of Halifax often saying “no,” setting off debate on how the East Coast’s biggest city can recapture its lost mojo in 2008.

As 2007 draws to a close, some citizens are looking back with regret at the mega-events that might have been, such as the 2014 Commonwealth Games bid that the city scuttled in March, or Celine Dion’s November decision to back out of an outdoor concert with her manager citing the city’s media negativity.

Don Mills, a pollster and businessman, is helping to launch a group that will work to “improve civic leadership” in the aftermath of the city’s decision to drop out of the bid for the Commonwealth Games, which were eventually won by Glasgow, Scotland.

“It would have caused a revival of investment of the city beyond the Games,” argues Mills. “People would have paid attention to us.”

Towards the end of the year, discontent surfaced among business leaders in the city as the Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign featuring “Yes” buttons. Meanwhile, Mills’s Citizens for Halifax Society is half way to its initial goal of 1,000 members.

But Mayor Peter Kelly doesn’t see the year in the same way.

He cites accomplishments ranging from 2,500 housing starts this year, the arrival of natural gas on the city’s peninsula and progress on a sewage cleanup plant. He also argues the Commonwealth Games would have left a heavy burden of debt for future generations to bear.

“I think we need to be realistic and send positive messaging as to what we can do, and what we cannot do,” he says.

“Sometimes you can’t be afraid to say ‘no’ if it’s outside of your realm of affordability.”

However, there are also ordinary citizens who argue the city’s “vision” is blurry compared with 12 years ago, when Halifax hosted world leaders at a G7 summit and was declared among North America’s “hippest” cities by Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

Some of the loudest debates in the city have centred on proposals to redevelop the downtown, with heritage advocates opposing developers who want to build taller buildings that obstruct views of the harbour from Citadel Hill, a historic fort perched above the city centre.

Peter Henry, a Halifax architect, wonders why compromises can’t be reached between heritage advocates who resist highrise buildings in the downtown and developers who want “tall buildings in the middle of a parking lot.”

“We need to embrace modernity, while respecting our heritage,” he says.

“We should be building a city that is dense, rich and exciting to be in. I can’t imagine being here as a young person who just left school at 25 or 26 years of age.”

Henry is critical of the city’s development plans, describing himself as deeply offended by the amount of public money spent on roads and infrastructure for big-box stores on the outskirts.

“We seem more and more destined to make ourselves look like Cincinnati or Cleveland and other beige cities in the American heartland.”

Meanwhile, Mills argues height restrictions on downtown office complexes means there’s a risk that the centre of the city will hollow out.

He also claims that since a provincially dictated amalgamation in the early 1990s, an unwieldy council is a balkanized collection of old suburban communities, the inner city and rural areas.

However, for all the criticisms, Kelly notes there are outsiders who praise Halifax, and he suggests some landmark building is on the way.

A Conference Board of Canada 2007 study ranked Halifax — with a population of 372,858 — as being among the nine “hub cities” of Canada, and gave it a rare A grade for the education level of its citizens.

Richard Homburg, a Halifax and Netherlands-based real estate developer who created Homburg Invest Inc., raised spirits in the city earlier this year when he donated $5 million to renovate the fitness centre at Saint Mary’s University.

He views the city as a likely candidate for some major construction, even though the bulk of his company’s acquisitions and growth has been in Alberta.

“I think it’s still a hip city,” he says.

The multi-millionaire is musing about a “major” public-private partnership to redevelop the city’s downtown core.

“We don’t want to build a building for $5 million or $10 million in Halifax,” he says. “If we do something let’s build something major. Maybe a financial centre, maybe there should be one large government place being built.”

The city has potential, provided the citizens start to participate in the public discussion over how to develop the city, says John DeWolf, a former Halifax graphic designer who now works as a professor at Washington’s Corcoran School of Art and Design.

DeWolf recalls that the G7 put the city on centre stage. At the time he was featured in magazine articles as his company created television graphics for U.S. cable channel Nickelodeon.

He says Halifax designers are still making an international mark, even if they’re out of the limelight.

Educate the public about good urban design and soon they will respond, he predicts.

“Halifax just finished an urban redesign plan and I do hope they implement it,” he says.

“When you have community understanding what good design is, then you can have change. People need to understand why we need to push the limits, why we need to change, why we can stop recreating our historic elements.”

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