The empty lot at the corner of Water and Prescott street may soon be home to a new hotel. Should it be 11 storeys? 6 storeys? Does it really have to be a hotel? Can we be Europe and Toronto at the same time?
by Sarah Smellie
The empty, gravel filled lot at 123 to 125 Water Street is quickly turning into a crystal ball of sorts.
With a shiny new council (well, in a way) and a shiny new mayor, a recent proposal by Halifax based Southwest Properties—the folks who took over Atlantic Place—is about to reveal a whole lot about where this post-Andy Wells team stands on development in the downtown core.
Here’s the deal: Southwest Properties recently proposed the construction of a four star hotel, complete with restaurant, conference rooms and underground parking, at that very site. The catch? Their initial proposal was for a two part building, with a four story section facing Water Street and an eleven story section facing the harbor.
For a bit of perspective, the TD Building weighs in at ten.
The current zoning regulations for that area—and a fair chunk of downtown—allow a maximum height of 15 meters, which works out to roughly four stories. The site has also been found to play an extra-special role in preserving the quintessence of the downtown core. Five years ago an economic development and heritage conservation study concluded that the present height and density regulations ought to be maintained. Most recently, the architecture firm PHB Group Inc. completed a study of public viewscapes in the city. The study concluded that a taller building would wreck many classic harbor views, views which are crucial in shaping impressions of the city and preserving the downtown character.
Basically, that gravel pit is a heritage hotspot.
“It’s a very sensitive and important site,” agrees Ward 2 Councilor Frank Galgay. “Any decision about it is going to relate to the future of downtown.”
According to Planning Manager Ken O’Brien, the city is looking at granting “bonus area” status to the site, which would allow for a taller, larger building to be constructed.
“With bonus areas, we consider impacts on traffic and parking, the impact on the street, impact on public views to and from the harbor, and we try to minimize impacts on heritage areas,” he says. “It’s a balance of whether it’s a good use for the site and a good use for downtown.”
In his epic reign, Andy Wells oversaw a number of bonus area buildings, such as the TD building, the Scotiabank building, and Mile One Centre. This is perhaps the first time a development issue this sensitive has been in front of council since he left council. Their final ruling will certainly set a precedent for the inevitable slew of similar proposals that will come as the city gets bigger.
So far, none of the councilors are very keen on the 11 storey proposal.
“It’s not acceptable at all,” said Galgay.
They’ve asked Southwest Properties to scale things down a bit. Ken O’Brien says Southwest has submitted a tamer proposal for a hotel which would be six storeys high—and it will emphasize, financially, they think this is the smallest they can go. Both proposals are being assessed for bonus area suitability.
Contrasted with an eleven storey building, that six storey building will no doubt be far more appealing to some.
After all, as Galgay points out, “something has got to go there.”
But does it have to be a hotel?
Ward Councilor Debbie Hanlon doesn’t think so.
“I wouldn’t want to see a hotel there,” she says. She muses about the possibility of a public park space instead. “Look at cities like New York and all the green space they have. There’s no reason to not have that here.” The city ought to sit tight and wait for a proposal which is better aligned with the significance of the spot, she says.
In a growing city, how would you like your heritage: tall, grande, or vente? City council, Planning, and Southwest Properties are getting together at August 18th council meeting to duke it out.
“Stay tuned,” chuckles O’Brien.
To let the city know what you’d like to see at that site, or what you want for downtown, fire off an email to your councilor. Addresses can be found at tinyurl.com/stjohnscouncil .