On the Waterfront

The CBRM has received one response to its call for expressions of interest in developing the Sydney waterfront and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only interest expressed came from a man who has been attempting to develop something on the Sydney waterfront for years.

Sydney businessman Martin Chernin’s Harbour Royale Development Limited (HRDL) has been planning developments for the properties in question — some of which he owns, some of which are owned by the municipality — since at least 2004, when, according to an editorial in the 25 March 2006 edition of the Cape Breton Post:

He first unveiled plans…for a 52-unit, $13 million luxury condominium tower 10 stories high.

By 2006, that project had morphed into “a $46 million complex of 43 condos and a 124-room hotel, with retail spaces and restaurants, and probably no higher than seven stories,” called “Spanish Gates.”

 

At the time, council was drafting its Northend development plan, which proposed protecting six harbor viewplanes in the district (this to avoid further developments like the seniors’ high rise that blocked the viewplane from Prince Street and the Department of Fisheries building that blocked the viewplane from York Street). In the end, the plan was written specifically to accommodate Spanish Gates by reducing the number of protected viewplanes from six to four.

But Spanish Gates never materialized and in 2015, Chernin announced plans for a scaled-back proposal, more like his initial 2004 plan, although the details were still subject to change. As I wrote back in 2016:

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.

On an encouraging note, the new building was designed to preserve the viewplane from Dorchester Street and included a grand staircase that would allow pedestrians to access the waterfront from the Esplanade.

The CBRM supported Chernin’s project, rewriting the rules they’d written for him in 2006 and setting aside $300,000 to build a street to access the building, with Harbour Royale paying 25% of the capital costs.

The last that was heard of the project was that Chernin’s architect, Sydney-based Spyro Trifos, was redesigning and rearranging the design to keep costs within Chernin’s $12 million budget.

The last that was heard, that is, until now…

 

It’s baa-aaaaack

According to documents attached to the agenda for Tuesday night’s regional council meeting (which was ultimately postponed due to weather), Chernin’s proposal is back — and bigger than ever. He’s proposing to develop the waterfront from the Holiday Inn to the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion:

 

This time, his firm will lead a development group that includes a company it misidentifies in the documents as the “Westmount Hotel Group” (it’s actually the Westmont Hospitality Group) or WHG, which it says has “an ownership interest” in Sydney’s Holiday Inn hotel.

Other members of the waterfront development group include Canderel, the Montreal real estate development firm involved in our port project; Ambassatours Gray Line, Dennis Campbell’s company, which owns most of Halifax’s waterfront and operates bus tours and the Harbour Hopper in Sydney; Trifos Design Consultants, seemingly the only architect in Sydney; and CBCL, the Atlantic Canadian engineering group.

The proposal is a strange amalgam of things we’ve already heard discussed and plans we’ve already seen (besides Chernin’s residential tower, the plan includes Trifos’ design for the new central library) with things I haven’t heard anyone discuss before (moving the casino from Centre 200 to an expanded Holiday Inn). At its heart is the Ekistics “vision” for what we were then calling our “harbourfront”:

 

Waterfront 3.0?

Let’s look at each of the components of the proposal. Beginning with my annotated version of the artist’s drawing, which you may click to enlarge:

 

Residential Unit

The proposal says this unit will be based on HRDL’s “existing development plan approval” for what it is now billing as a nine-story, 47-unit apartment complex. The plan says this portion of the development is expected to go ahead “immediately” if the overall plan is approved.

I say, don’t hold your breath.

 

Casino Relocation/Hotel Expansion

This is a tricky piece of business, involving Centre 200 giving up a tenant — the casino, which was built as an extension to the facility in 1995 — to the private company, WHG, that operates the Holiday Inn on the waterfront.

HRDL says the “waterfront location would be attractive” to Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC), which operates Casino Nova Scotia Sydney (and which completed renovations to the facility it claimed were worth $1 million in 2016.) It then states that:

In the event that GCG was prepared to move and the financial terms that would support financing the structure could be successfully negotiated, WHG is willing to entertain an expansion of its existing Holiday Inn space.

That’s a lot of conditionals — and a lot of expansion, the proposal calls for an eight-story, 96-room hotel tower.

I wanted to clarify the relationship between GCGC and the province, so I asked Monica MacLean, communications manager with the NS Provincial Lotteries and Casino Corporation, who told me:

Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC) operates two Casino Nova Scotia locations in Nova Scotia, Halifax and Sydney, under the terms of an operating contract with the Nova Scotia Provincial Lotteries and Casino Corporation.

I also wanted to clarify the nature of GCGC’s deal with the CBRM for the Centre 200 space. She told me:

GCGC and NSPLCC both have an ownership interest in the Sydney Casino space and leases the land from Cape Breton Regional Municipality contributing approximately $335,000 in property taxes in 2016. This location also employs approximately 130 Nova Scotians in addition to supporting local community groups.

(I’ve asked MacLean if the lotteries corporation has been approached about a possible relocation of the Sydney casino, and will update when I receive a response. I also asked if GCGC could decide, unilaterally, to change locations or if the lottery corporation would also have a say in the matter, given its ownership interest in the Centre 200 space.)

(Reading about the casino and the library in the same report reminded me of CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke’s seemingly out-of-the-blue announcement in 2016 that a new central library could be part of Centre 200. Will someone now propose housing it in the “former” casino?)

 

Library

This is the part of the plan where a truly community-minded development group would offer to build a new central library in return for the right to develop (and profit from) the rest of our waterfront.

Our development group, however, opts instead for:

This would be a publicly owned and financed undertaking. If requested, the development group would endeavour to support CBRM’s financing effort/requirements.

I am not sure what “endeavouring to support” our “financing effort/requirements” would entail but I don’t think it means, “We’re going to build you a library.”

 

Marine Activity Center

This seems to be Ambassatours baby. They intend to “re-offer” the Harbour Hopper tours in 2018 and are considering expanding the offering to themed cruises and “seasonal pop-up kiosk type activity.”

As for funding/ownership:

The objective is to build the brand over time to ensure the right-sizing and optimum design of the privately-owned activity center infrastructure. Ideas around theme parks for children would likely require some level of public sector funding support.

And in case you still aren’t getting the message about the pace at which this development will proceed, the authors continue:

The importance of reserving the space and presenting a longer-term vision…cannot be overstated…It is suggested that successfully achieving the vision requires a thoughtful development strategy and an iterative planning process executed by a group with a proven track record.

Read: We want the option to develop your waterfront in our own sweet time so don’t go imposing any deadlines or complaining that nothing is happening.

 

Commercial Tower

This is “Phase 2” of the project, a nine-story office tower.

HRDL is “currently seeking an anchor tenant” which would be required “to finance its construction.”

HRDL believes demand for the space “is likely to materialize within a three to five year timeframe.”

HRDL does not offer a shred of evidence in support of this belief.

 

Concrete proposal

The proponents claim the project will be guided by “best practice benchmarks related to ‘green’ design,” but I’m dubious.

Rooftop parking lots, for example, don’t scream ‘green design’ in 2018, nor do large swaths of concrete (there is actually something called a “concrete beach.”)

But these are all things council could push the developers on.

 

Conclusion

Overall, I have two main problems with the development as presented: the first is the same problem I had with the design for Chernin’s original building — I find the architecture utterly uninspiring and inappropriate to the Sydney waterfront.

I spoke to a number of architecture profs when I first saw the design for Chernin’s building and they talked about the advantages of using local materials and the local “vernacular” to ensure new structures suit their environments. (They also warned against allowing the developer to be too involved in the design process.)

Trifos’ response to such concerns seems to have been to include a mural of Sydney’s historic waterfront in the Marine Activity Centre.

I can see the benefits of more people living in the “waterfront district” and I like that public access to the waterfront will not be impaired, I just wish the architecture were more interesting. That doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive, but it would mean involving an architect (or two) other than the one who has designed pretty much every other new building in Sydney.

My other problem is that request for seemingly endless time in which to see this development through. I hope council will put some deadlines on any agreement, rather than letting this group tie up our waterfront indefinitely. Remember, it’s been 14 years since Chernin unveiled that first luxury condominium tower plan.

On the bright side, thanks to Tuesday’s cancelation, council has more time to consider the proposal — maybe even to ask for some informed opinion on it — before they have to approve anything.

In fact, we all have time to consider the proposal. Here it is:

Sydney_Waterfront_Development_Concept

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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