Halifax's major construction has almost tripled in value over a decade
Halifax Regional Municipality revamps planning department to deal with the new normal
Anyone who has walked through downtown Halifax in recent years has heard the drilling and hammering of construction crews, and watched as giant cranes help build storey after storey.
Now a CBC News analysis of a decade worth of development permits confirms the Halifax core is in the midst of a building boom.
On the peninsula alone, the estimated value of those hotel, condominium and office tower projects, adjusted for inflation, almost tripled between 2006 and 2015.
And if the last three and a half months are any indication, 2016 is on the way to surpassing last year.
"The intensity of development in the downtown was something that we didn't have a lot of experience with," Halifax's chief planner, Bob Bjerke, told CBC News.
'A sustained trend'
Between 2011 and 2012, the total value of permits jumped from $40 million to $187 million.
That sudden escalation was driven by several large projects: the Nova Centre; the new Halifax Central Library; the new Hampton Inn; a residence at Dalhousie University; renovations of the Halifax Shopping Centre, Fenwick Tower and the TD Centre; plus construction of several large condo buildings.
There have been dips since the bumper year of 2012, but values are up overall, part of what Bjerke calls "a sustained trend."
The actual cost of projects is likely much higher than what's reflected in building permit estimates. Many costs aren't included.
'Cultural shift' drives growth
One of the reasons behind the growth is a "cultural shift," according to Jill Grant, a Dalhousie University planning professor who has studied Halifax's changing demographics in the downtown and suburbs.
More young, single people, along with retirees with no children left in the household, are moving downtown, she said.
"That's driving downtown growth," Grant said. "Developers are taking advantage of a market that started in the larger cities earlier."
Halifax's Killam Properties is riding that change by constructing two large residential apartment buildings in downtown, marketing director Jeremy Jackson said.
'Huge boost' to developers' confidence
One on Barrington Street has small — almost "micro" — units, perhaps well-suited to the young, childless professional. The second is closer to the Brewery Market and has a bit more space, perhaps better tailored for empty nesters and seniors, he said.
"There is a shift in traditional thinking about apartment living," Jackson said.
That's matched by Halifax being the largest centre in Atlantic Canada, with a small but steady influx of people, he said. Jackson said the $25 billion shipbuilding contract in 2011 helped kick off the region's building boom in 2012.
"That was a huge boost to the general kind of confidence level for developers around Halifax," Jackson said.
Bjerke admits there have been "growing pains" related to the upsurge, including complaints about sidewalks shut down for months, historic buildings knocked down for newer homes, and development approvals critics say are out of touch with community needs.
"It's been a shift for people," Bjerke said. "Halifax looking to the future is a bit different than what Halifax was looking into the past, and that shift has happened in quite a quick way."
The increase is less dramatic in the broader municipality, but follows the same general trend.
$160M in permits for Larry Uteck
Areas outside the core that have seen dramatic growth include Bayers Lake and Dartmouth Crossing. And an estimated $160 million in building permits were issued for Bedford's Larry Uteck Boulevard over a decade.
Peninsula Halifax, with its mix of commercial and residential — and history, is a bit more delicate.
"We're a little bit in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water," Grant said.
'Changing very fast'
Municipal planners have encouraged downtown development, but "I don't think they expected to see as much as quickly as it's coming," Grant said.
The public, unable to keep up, is locked out of many discussions, Grant said, as most developments are discussed publicly only if they want rule exemptions.
"Some parts of the city are changing very fast right now and we won't recognize them in a few years," she said.
Bjerke said his team is trying to find that balance.
"We want to find that sweet spot where we've got a good level of activity," Bjerke said.
"At the same time, not completely rewrite what we already have because Halifax has fantastic bones … We don't want to create something that doesn't look and feel like Halifax."
Suburban to urban
Halifax Regional Municipality is developing a Centre Plan to govern development and other community design topics in Halifax and Dartmouth over the next 15 years. That may include a total revamp of bylaws to address the continually changing landscape.
Bjerke is in charge of the planning department, which has received a $350,000 budget increase to hire a dozen new staff over the next two years. He said staff and the region at large were "a little behind" as development had previously been "static" for years.
"The bylaws, the regulations, the approaches and even the experience for the staff and the developers, frankly … had been at that point in time much more suburban," Bjerke said.
"An urban environment is quite different."