While You’re Re-Designing that Building, Why Not Make It Better?

Construction of Sydney businessman Marty Chernin’s mixed-use apartment building on the Sydney waterfront has been postponed again—Chernin told the Post  he now hopes to break ground in Spring of 2017.

Chernin’s Harbour Royale Development intends to build on the harbor side of the Esplanade at the foot of Dorchester Street. The building’s height is hard to pin down—CBRM Council was asked to change the relevant bylaw to allow for an 11-storey structure (including two parking levels), but it has been described variously as a 10-storey building, an eight-storey building and most recently as a seven-storey building even as the number of units seems to have grown from 42 to 45.


Chernin also told the Post a “potential commercial tenant” had opted to build a standalone building. (Given that Chernin is already landlord to the Commerce Bank, the Royal Bank and the TD Bank; given that the architect’s drawing of the building has the word “Bank” written twice on the main floor; and given that the Bank of Montreal just built a standalone building — which looks like a car wash — in the parking lot of the Sydney Shopping Centre, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that former potential tenant was the Bank of Montreal.)

The budget, initially pegged at $10 million, is now said to be $12 million, despite the aforementioned loss of storeys, and Chernin said he and his architect, Sydney-based Spyro Trifos, must redesign and rearrange things to keep costs within that budget.


Maritime Vernacular

I will not lie: I’m not sorry to see construction on this project delayed.

I attended a public information session on the development back in October 2015 and earned a mention in the subsequent report to Council, as one of “two individuals” who:

 …raised concerns regarding the changes in height and exterior design requirements that would have to be made to the bylaw to accommodate the development (the maximum height requirement would have to be increased to 11 storeys from eight storeys, and the requirement that building facades be primarily composed of brick or wood or materials that have the appearance of wood or brick would have to be deleted). The concerns seemed to be focused not so much on the building being proposed by Harbour Royale but on the fear that if this amendment proceeds that other, similar buildings will be built throughout the waterfront area.

I would like to take this opportunity to state that my concerns were focused very much on the building being proposed by Harbour Royale as well as any potential copycat building that could block what’s left of our harbor view. (And yes, I know the building respects the viewplane from the end of Dorchester Street and that the plan now includes a public staircase from the Esplanade to the boardwalk, and I appreciate both.)

I also appreciate the need for residential space in Sydney’s downtown, but I was starry-eyed enough to imagine it might include some affordable residential space for tenants other than wealthy, down-sizing baby boomers.

I had even hoped any development might be on the non-harbor side of the Esplanade.

Failing all that, I had at least hoped that any development on our public waterfront and in our historic North End would respect the rules and regulations the CBRM went to some effort and expense to devise for the district—including the development plan for the North End of the city and the $60,000 “conceptual vision and design” plan for the harborfront commissioned by the CBRM from Ekistics in 2014.

Chernin’s design is out of tune with both.

As mentioned, one of his first steps was to ask Council to modify the 2006 North End development plan (which itself had been written specifically for a larger development he was then involved with, Spanish Gates) to allow him to ignore the rules regarding construction materials and building height. Council obliged on both.


Conceptual drawings for Spanish Gates development.

Chernin’s plan also violates one of the design principals laid out in the Ekistics’ plan, namely: “Incorporate local history and local vernacular into the design of the waterfront,” but Ekistics apparently (and conveniently) suggested that rather than obey that precept, Chernin should instead design a building in tune with his other two buildings in the area—The Commerce Tower and the Provincial courthouse—the  the oldest of which dates to 1987.



Unsolicited Advice

At the time of the public consultations on the project, I asked professors of architecture from Dalhousie, Carleton, Ryerson and UBC their opinion of the building’s design—particularly given its location and the rules and regulations the CBRM had put in place for development in the area. Council approved the project before I had time to write anything, but since Chernin and Trifos are going to be “redesigning” and “rearranging” for the next few months, I thought I’d pass along a little unsolicited advice. Who doesn’t enjoy unsolicited advice?

Frank Palermo of Dalhousie University’s School of Planning said:

In my view it is never (well at least rarely) a good idea to model new development on existing buildings which don’t fit well with the existing context. It’s particularly difficult to understand this attitude when you have a recent plan which seems to clearly identify how the area should be developed.

I’m not at all convinced by the illustration of the proposed development. I think you (the city) have to get this right. And, I don’t believe this is right. The form, the footprint, the building edges (along the water and the street) all need more consideration and design. The development needs to be much more consistent with the spirit and quality suggested by the 2014 Plan.

Lucie Fontein of the Azreili School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University told me there are “ways to build a scheme that is more sensitive to both the cultural and physical environment of Sydney ” but they require an architect who understands that s/he has a professional duty both to the client and to the public. Fontein cited the Canadian Handbook of Architectural Practice, which outlines four principles for architects:

• expertise; to assure the public that professionals engaged to perform professional services have acquired the expertise to perform them to acceptable standards
• autonomy; Uncompromised professional judgment should take precedence over any other motive. They act independently and accept responsibility for their actions.
• commitment; a high level of dedication to the work done on behalf of their clients and society. [emphasis Fontein’s]
• accountability: Professionals accept personal responsibility and liability for the consequences of their professional behavior. Furthermore, professionals are expected to protect not only the primary interest of their clients but also the interest of the public. [emphasis Fontein’s]

This makes sense to me and helps explain why Chernin’s design bothers me so much: no one questions his ownership of the land or his right to develop it, but when your land is on a community’s waterfront, surely the public interest must also be considered. I know some will say that getting wealthy people to live downtown is in the  public interest—they’ll patronize local businesses, they’ll bring life to the district, the developer will pay taxes—all of which is true but must it be at the expense of our communal harborfront? (A harborfront, by the way, that is only attractive as a building site because of the millions we, as a community, have pumped into the boardwalk and the cruise pavilion and—let’s be honest—sewage treatment over the past number of years.)

Cheryl Atkinson, an assistant professor at the Department of Architectural Science at Ryerson University (who characterized Chernin’s building as “utterly conventional”) also questioned its suitability to the waterfront:

Where are the references to Maritime architecture (which was traditionally wood and colorful)—particularly when it is in a historic district ?

Setting a precedent for taking frontage of communal waterfront from the public domain by plunking this building in front of it is only going to lead to more of the same.

Of course, our precedent was set well before this with the Civic Centre, the Cambridge Suites, the Holiday Inn and—most infamously—the seniors’ high rise (and at least we’ve learned a lesson about protecting viewplanes). But does that mean we should write off the little waterfront we have left? Says Atkinson:

Waterfront is precious and traditionally in the public trust—not to be sold off to developers.


Site Sensitive

Atkinson also pointed me to some housing designs by the architects at a Winnipeg firm called 5468796 Architecture who “create lots of inexpensive housing that is beautiful, creative and sensitive to its locale.”


The Tree House is one example — it’s a town home development scheduled for construction in Toronto’s Birch Cliff neighborhood in 2017. At 39 units, it’s close to the capacity of Chernin’s building. According to 5468796 Architecture’s web site:

The project raises the bar for high quality, contemporary architecture in the area by offering well-built, ample-sized and affordably priced homes and authentic community spaces for first time home-buyers, particularly families. Instead of a large residential building, The Tree House is composed of three separate block[s] staggered to follow the property lines and maximize green space, with all required parking located underground. The multi-level two and three bedroom units range in size from 935 sq ft to 1325 sq ft. The project will appeal to buyers who desire both indoor and outdoor areas, with exterior access in the form of courtyards, private rooftop terraces and gardens. The shared courtyards provide open communal space for residents, encouraging social engagement.


Of course, these are condos, not apartments (and “affordably priced” in Toronto means starting at $460,000) and the design may not be your cup of tea but it is so much more interesting and site-sensitive than the building about to be “plunked” down on our waterfront, that it’s got to make you think—especially if the project price as listed on the architect’s website is correct (which I haven’t been able to verify), because it suggests this three-building development will be much cheaper to build than Chernin’s single building.

Atkinson also referenced the modern canal houses of Borneo Sporenburg, a housing development in eastern Amsterdam, as an example of waterfront architecture in keeping with its surroundings. The buildings are new (the work of a number of different architects) but their connection to the traditional Dutch canal houses is obvious:

Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Left: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Borneo Sporenburg houses via MVRDV.

 I know Sydney is not Toronto or Amsterdam. I know it’s not even Sydney, as it was in its heyday. But we’re like an aristocratic family in decline—we still have a few nice things, and one of them is our waterfront. Are we really so desperate to develop it we’ll accept anything anyone chooses to build? Can we not demand better? Especially if “better” doesn’t necessarily mean “more expensive?”

What it comes down to is writing good bylaws and then enforcing them. As Sara Stevens, an assistant professor at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, said, while a developer could “build a lovely building for $10 [million] that’s environmentally friendly, site-sensitive, and appropriate to the context,” there is really no way, if that developer is following all existing rules, to control the aesthetics of what gets built.

“Matters of taste are difficult to legislate or regulate.”



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