Does Halifax need Missing “Gentle Density” or Armoyan’s 20-storeys?

FHC’s latest letter to City Council asking them to not approve a 20- or 29-storey highrise at Robie & Quinpool, at City Hall’s April 25th public hearing included Brent Toderian’s

Brent Toderian, former Vancouver city planner now advocates for what his photo shows Halifax already has, “gentle density”.

“Canadian Cities need more gentle density to address housing crunch. The former Vancouver city planner writes that ground-oriented housing that’s denser than a detached house is the “missing middle” in housing needs.
Something’s changed since Mr. Toderian’s keynote speach for the Dexel Group’s 2016 PR campaign promoting towers on the single block of the Halifax Common at Robie, College, Spring Garden and Carlton. Now it seems he would agree that 16-, 23-, 26- and 30-storey highrises are the wrong kind of game changer as they are not conducive to “preserving community building blocks” as part of planning for resilient, diverse, complete and affordable neighbourhoods. But as he describes, this same block is an ideal candidate for in-fill within the middle of the block that would respectfully compliment the existing mixed-use, small-scale historic neighbourhood.

Specific height restrictions by Carlton Street (35’, 45’ and 50’) protect the neighbourhood, as they do at Robie, Quinpool, Parker and Welsford where the present APL tower is located. Highrises built at this location in the 60s & 70s were recognized as incongruous mistakes. Height restrictions were put in place to protect the small scale, densely packed and stable neighbourhoods. And to protect the last 20-acres of open space on the Halifax Common, all that remains out of the 240-acre grant.

Citizens have been waiting since 1994 for a promised master plan for the Halifax Common. In the interim many acres of the Halifax Common have been built on or given over to parking lots to the extent that at present less than 20 acres remains as public open space. This is hard evidence and a relevant testament to how really bad planning results become when there is no over-arching vision for the long term. And unfortunately bad planning or no planning endure; what is damaged remains so.

Citizens have also been waiting years for the completion of the Centre Plan. Since that 2010 at least 179 development agreements applications been processed. Too many HRM planning staff (~18) are absorbed in working on Development Agreements when compared to the number working on the Centre Plan (~3). Should that be how HRM staff time is prioritized and allocated? Does your government not believe in the importance of the Centre Plan?

To plan for a city we need to ensure that development is within a context of city-building, not just developer buildings. Citizens are asking for precisely what Mr. Toderian suggests is the missing solution -gentle density respectful of neighbourhoods and of green space such as the Halifax Common.

Canadian cities need more ‘gentle density’ to address housing crunch

Ground-oriented housing that’s more dense than a detached house is the “missing middle” in the housing conversation.

By: Brent Toderian For Metro Published on Tue Mar 07 2017
If you could be a fly on the wall in city planning departments lately, chances are you’d overhear a conversation about “gentle density.” And the planners would look pretty stressed.

That’s because most cities are struggling with significant housing challenges, and recognize their existing planning rules and approaches aren’t going to solve them.

These difficult and complicated challenges include building more complete and resilient communities, addressing politically explosive debates about neighbourhood change, and improving affordability. There’s also the challenge of preserving community “building blocks” like local schools and shopping as some neighbourhoods lose population, the debilitating cost of sprawl, and the clear connections between public health and building communities.

So what is gentle density, and what does it have to do with all that?

As I defined it back in 2007, gentle density is attached, ground-oriented housing that’s more dense than a detached house, but with a similar scale and character. Think duplexes, semi-detached homes, rowhouses, or even stacked townhouses.

In short, it’s “gentle” because the actual impacts of adding such housing choices, if designed well, are minimal – although you wouldn’t know that by the controversy that can be raised in some communities.

­Many people don’t mind sharing a common wall and are eager to cut their costs and carbon footprint, but still appreciate a direct relationship with the ground. That’s why fellow urbanist Daniel Parolek in San Francisco calls this kind of density the “missing middle.” In most cities this middle is under-represented, if it’s there at all.

In some cases, this is because builders need to learn (or re-learn) this kind of building. In others, land economics and land assembly make it tough sledding.

In most cities though, deliberate zoning decisions have made this kind of housing illegal.

That’s a problem, because from a planning and design perspective, there’s nothing fundamentally incompatible about all sorts of gentle density co-habitating in a well-designed neighbourhood.

When we listen carefully, the opposition to such a mix usually isn’t about planning principles – it’s more often about politics fueled by financial self-interest (the perceived impact on property values) and “not in my backyard” sentiments.

If we want to get serious about addressing our big challenges, we need to seriously rethink how we discuss and address change in our communities. Ironically, gentle density could help strengthen and stabilize our neighbourhoods far better than trying to cast them in amber would.

Our cities and suburbs need more gentle density. Our stressed-out planning departments are struggling with how to do it well. Let’s give them our encouragement and ideas.
Brent Toderian is an international city planner and urbanist with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS. He is Vancouver’s former chief planner, and also the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.