Nova Scotia

Steele's Halifax Honda expansion was preventable, ex-planner says

A former lead planner with the Halifax Regional Municipality says a car dealer's plans to bulldoze a Halifax neighbourhood should have been prevented.

Steele Auto Group has plans to bulldoze area homes to expand its Colonial Honda site

Steele Auto Group owns Colonial Honda on Robie Street, and has bought a number of properties surrounding the dealership. (Rachel Ward/CBC)

A former lead planner with the Halifax Regional Municipality says a car dealer's plans to bulldoze a Halifax neighbourhood should have been prevented.

Steele Auto Group plans to expand its parking lot and car display area at its Robie Street Honda location. It recently bought 25 mostly residential properties and has permits to demolish 17 of those.

Former municipal urban design manager Andy Fillmore told CBC News maintaining — and increasing — housing on the peninsula should be the priority.

"We're building a new city up there, heading northward," he said. "That really needs to be city fabric, not car dealerships."

'Gasoline alley'

Fillmore, who now represents Halifax as a member of Parliament, said he met with peninsula car dealership executives around 2010 when on the job.

Andy Fillmore was an urban design manager with Halifax. (Andy Fillmore/Twitter)

He said executives told him their companies needed to expand. He said he and other planners thought they should do so off the peninsula.

"Most cities have what they call 'gasoline alley.' They're on the outskirts of town. You go there, they're all clustered together. It's very convenient for the customers," Fillmore said.

"And they were willing to do that."

Fillmore and others left the department soon after that preliminary meeting with car dealerships, he said, and the file may have been lost in the shuffle.

He said he hopes the city picks the file up — and offers his help with "setting the car dealers up for success off the peninsula" in a consolidated place.

"I don't think that's Robie Street."

This is the Halifax neighbourhood affected by the property purchases and proposed demolitions. (CBC News Graphics)

'Value the dealership's location'

Steele Auto Group president Dave MacRitchie said in an email he's not familiar with the meeting, but that the company wants to be a part of a "vibrant north-end community."

Esthetic elements to the parking lot expansion will blend with the mixed-use neighbourhood, he said.

"Many of our 100 employees live in the area and we regularly hear from our customers how much they value the dealership's location," said MacRitchie.

"The lot and surrounding area that we are talking about is all zoned commercial."

'City fabric, not car dealerships'

The area Steele is looking to redevelop covers May Street to North Street, between Robie Street and Fern Lane. It's zoned for commerical use, with some exceptions, but means almost anything can be built there.

Right now, the area mostly holds single family homes and multi-unit rentals.

The company has "no definite schedule for demolition," MacRitchie said.

The municipality long has planned to increase housing density in that area, Fillmore said, adding the area shouldn't house large parking lots on valuable land.

"That needs to be for people to live and work," he said.

Halifax planners are looking at completely redesigning zoning and development bylaws on the peninsula through a Centre Plan, for which they're holding public consultations.

The Steele Auto Group now owns rental properties along Robie Street near its dealership. (CBC)

Options 'really don't exist'

Jennifer Watts, the municipal councillor for the district, said she's not sure moving all the dealerships off the peninsula is the solution, but said existing housing must be better protected by stricter zoning.

She said she's taken the views of the neighbourhood to Steele, but found residents have few options.

"In fact, they're very limited," Watts said. "In fact, they probably just really don't exist."

Neighbours have started a petition and Facebook group to pressure Steele into changing its plans.

Because of zoning, Steele is within its rights to develop land within those rules, Watts said.

Halifax councillor Jennifer Watts said the public really needs to give feedback to the Centre Plan to stop future zoning problems. (CBC)

The housing purchases, demolition permits and parking lot construction don't need to go to council or public consultation. 

The next north-end Halifax consultation for the Centre Plan is Wednesday, May 11, at the Halifax Forum.

"People really need to show up and talk about the impact of zoning and what it can and cannot do — and what it's doing to neighbourhoods," said Watts.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with The Fifth Estate. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

With files from Pam Berman

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