Why is there so much construction happening all at once Downtown?
It’s the result of a new Downtown plan, HRM by Design, reflecting a renewed focus on Downtown living, a natural life cycle regeneration for class-A office space, and low interest rates. This collection of factors has coalesced to create the largest building boom in our Downtown. Ever. The number of cranes dotting the sky is a source of excitement, and it’s something many cities would kill for right now.
But the other side of that story is that construction often hurts the existing businesses who suffer through the noise, the dirt, and the perception that it’s just too messy for people to go downtown. Construction projects can and do hurt existing businesses. While this is inevitable to a degree, we can and should be doing a much better job at alleviating the pain for the businesses in our Downtown.
Our role at DHBC has been to try and facilitate better communication between developers and businesses. With the Nova Centre project in particular, we have done this through quarterly meetings, email blasts, personal notifications, and individual meetings. Both the developers and the impacted businesses are members of our organization, so taking sides is not productive for us, or for the city at large.
The Halifax Pylon Club, started by businesses around the Nova Centre, is a creative initiative. Commercial tax reform, which is finally moving in the right direction, will take time. Parking improvements, such as a mobile parking app, are coming soon. Free wifi is also coming soon. A new staff report that includes recommendations for improvements to notification with regard to construction, a focus on pedestrian access, and improved hoarding standards will be presented to Council soon. If approved by Council, those will all help.
Given it is HRM budget time, we would like to resurrect an idea that has been contemplated before, and which we believe is doable both politically and financially.
THE CONSTRUCTION MITIGATION RESERVE
When developers take over either a sidewalk or part of the street during construction, they pay significant encroachment fees, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are a new revenue stream for HRM, and given that they are fees (rather than taxes) there is greater political will to earmark how the dollars generated are used.
We believe that a construction mitigation reserve should be established in the 2016/17 HRM budget. The funds from this reserve would be earmarked for uses which would alleviate the issues faced by businesses and citizens due to construction.
Funds from such a construction mitigation reserve could go toward advertising, beautification, enhanced maintenance, wayfinding signage, art, attractions, etc., and, importantly would be earmarked to support the area where the construction is happening. If a Dartmouth development paid encroachment fees, the money should stay in Dartmouth. If it’s a development in Bedford, the funds would stay there. For developments that happen in Downtown Halifax, the reserve would be used here. We envision an HRM-wide policy that is designed to give direct benefit to the areas most impacted. Given that HRM has established several reserves in the past year (for example, earmarking parking revenue from Metro Park to fund parking technology improvements), there is legal and political precedence.
There is no single magic solution to how to stop development from impacting small businesses. It requires a multitude of well-executed actions including ongoing communication, creative promotion, better standards for encroachment, and committing resources to help.
Some of these things we can do right now. But as Nova Centre is, thankfully, not the last large scale development we will experience, let’s make sure that a focus on mitigating negative effects of construction remains a priority. We’ll be dealing with construction for a long time to come, and ultimately that’s a good thing – if we handle it right.
Downtown Halifax Business Commission