The road to a happier outcome for a downtown Halifax complex

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Let's start the story from scratch. We have a big empty space in the heart of the capital city, a desire on all sides to fill it with something that will make the city proud, and the usual corrosive dispute between developers and critics about how to do it.

Let me argue that the dispute is not as bad as it seems, and that we could even be inching towards something vaguely resembling compromise.

This is based on two things. First, the process is now right. By making the background studies public, the NDP government has largely removed itself from suspicion and put itself in a position to be an honest broker for the convention centre project.

Second, there's been some subtle movement in the argument: The enemy camps are, in principle, not as far apart as they seem, although they're still bristling.

In releasing the background documents to the project, Infrastructure Minister Bill Estabrooks said this: "We look forward to receiving the submission this summer and doing a thorough review to determine if this is the right project at an affordable price. It will be important to hear from the public on a project of this magnitude before a final decision is made."

If so, it's music to my ears, and possibly an open door to a proper development.

As for the arguments, let me first quote something from Heywood Sanders, the University of Texas professor of urban planning whose research revealing the weak economics of convention centres blew open the debate here. In one of our conversations, he asked, of Halifax or any other city having built or planning a big convention centre, "How can you presume to attract strangers to your downtown if you can't attract your own people?" Good question.

Now switch to the local scene. The developer party seems to have stopped arguing that Halifax needs a big facility because it's losing out on big conventions. The bleakness of that argument seems to have sunk in: Cities throughout North America are in a sort of arms race of convention centres as business gradually declines, with all of them losing money.

Instead, the argument has shifted to the stimulus effect, in which the public gets its investment back through the increased business and tax revenue such centres bring to downtowns.

There's little or no evidence that they do that either, but this is actually a more promising line of argument -- as long as another proposition is accepted: that success will depend at least as much, if not more, on local business as on outsiders.

This brings us back to Sanders' point. If success depends to great degree on local business, a downtown complex with Nova Scotians in mind first will be more successful, more profitable and more in tune with the personality of the city.

The preliminary project that developer Rank Inc. has proposed is a clunker, a thing from the North American urban planning cookie cutter, impressive from a distance but hostile to the life of the city up close -- and built on the presumption that the taxpayer will pay.

Here's a suggestion as the public's input is sought: survey the suburbs for ideas as to what would draw them downtown, and survey the organizations that now use the Metro Centre for ideas. The goal, if such is possible, should be development amenable to both Nova Scotian and national/international business, and in tune with the life of the city. This is a proper challenge, it seems to me, for both architecture and urban planning.

And a challenge for public finances, let's not forget. Regarding the Rank Inc. proposal, we started talking about $100 million in public funds (in a public/private partnership arrangement, another sticky point). Now the figure rattling around is $200 million and we haven't started anything yet. If experience elsewhere serves, we might be talking about $400 million. All of which underlines the point that this is of vital interest to the province as a whole and its finances, not just Halifax Regional Municipality.

And which reaffirms the point that the government - that is, the taxpayer -- actually has the whip hand in deciding what goes ahead and what doesn't, and all depends on how it uses it. Best of luck to you, Bill Estabrooks.


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