Delayed Development

Coverage of “developer” Jim Kehoe’s Cossitt Heights Park has made my eyes cross so firmly that typing has become a challenge, but I will persevere.

It all started (the story, not the Kehoe coverage) in 1991 (pre-amalgamation) when the Cossitt Heights Industrial Park was established on Upper Prince Street in Sydney. It was…not a success. The consultancy Stantec, in its 2010, CBRM Integrated Community Sustainability Plan, would say of it:

CBRM owns two business parks: Cossitt Heights and the Northside Industrial Park, both of which it has promoted in cooperation with CBCEDA [Cape Breton County Economic Development Authority]. CBRM has recently decided that Cossitt Heights, where only about a quarter of the land has been developed over many years, is not attractive to businesses. The Municipality has consequently determined to develop remaining lands for residential purposes…

Not being attractive to business is a pretty much insurmountable hurdle for an industrial park, little wonder the CBRM decided to turn it into a housing development.

I went through the CBRM council and committee minutes and the first reference to designating Cossitt Heights for “medium to high density residential development” appears in the minutes of a September 2002 meeting of the Planning and Advisory Committee. The recommendation was approved, but the actual process of amending the Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) and Land Use By-Law (LUB) to allow for this redesignation took years.

It wasn’t until September 2007 that the CBRM’s Corporate Services Committee passed a:

Motion to consider legitimate offers from private developers to acquire the Cossit[t] Heights land assembly by instructing Planning, Engineering and Recreation staff to draft and put forth a request for proposals which address the engineering planning and recreational considerations commented on in this report.

Malcolm Gillis of the Planning Department had prepared a report for the committee, one section of which dealt with “Private vs Public Development of Subdivision.” I’ve requested a copy from the Municipal Clerk’s Office because I’m very curious to see how the “public development” option was presented (as of press time, I had not received a copy).

Not particularly favorably, I’m guessing, as it was dumped immediately in favor of the private sector option.


Baille Ard

Speaking of public versus private, I should note here that the plan to develop Cossitt Heights into a residential subdivision has always had at least a peripheral connection to the plan to develop the nearby Baille Ard lands into a network of nature trails. (At a couple of points, it was even suggested that connection become overt, as you will see.)

In 1995, the Province entered into a lease agreement with the City of Sydney to use 12.5 acres of land within what was termed the “Baille Ard land assembly” for the “sole use and occupation as Park and Outdoor Recreation Land.”

The not-for-profit Baille Ard Recreation Association (BARA) developed a network of trails that, by 2007, (with the written permission of the province) it had “expanded beyond the jurisdiction of the 1995 lease.” And so, in October 2007, the group approached the Planning Advisory Committee asking that the CBRM “initiate discussions” with the Province about expanding Baille Ard Land Lease agreement to include the rest of the land assembly (about 50 acres). The group wanted those discussions to include:

A unified approach to the future development of the Baille Ard and Cossitt Heights lands.

In January 2009, a non-profit society calling itself the Cape Breton Commonlands Association approached the CBRM requesting that it be:

…given authority to act as agents of the CBRM and the Province in the joint development and management of the Baille Ard land assembly and Cossitt Heights into a residential subdivision.

But when the Province expressed reluctance to enter into such an agreement, the CBRM instead began pushing to have the land conveyed to the CBRM.

Once again, though, the Province balked – this time arguing that it would eventually use the Baille Ard lands (which it owned through the Department of Community Services) for low-income housing. Until such time as the land was needed, however, the Province expressed itself willing to expand the existing lease with BARA (which consists of two terms, the first term expired in 2016, the second will expire in 2037) to cover the additional lands.

I couldn’t find any evidence in the meeting minutes of the ownership question ever being settled, so I asked the CBRM and as of press time, I had not received an answer.

The listing for the Baille Ard Trail on Nova Scotia Connect, the province’s online recreation guide, states that it covers “close to 70 acres.”

In July 2016, BARA went to CBRM Council to ask it to support the association’s plan to connect the trail with the Cossitt Heights housing development — a plan that requires Province to either deed additional property to the group or grant permission for its use.



If you build it…

Okay, back to Cossitt Heights.

Having decided to accept “legitimate” (remember that word) offers from private developers in 2007 and having turned down the request from Commonlands to oversee the development in 2009, the CBRM council, in November 2010, began the process of amending the MPS and LUB to allow Cossitt Heights to be redesignated residential. The first step was to hold a Public Participation Program, the stated purpose of which was to:

…solicit ideas from the general public regarding the Cossitt Heights area, with the objective of opening the entire remaining undeveloped acreage for residential development; and implementing a more comprehensive residential designation with implementing zoning provisions designed specifically for the land assembly that addresses a range of housing options.

By 2011, council had given final approval to the MPS and LUB amendments and in March 2012 the Post was reporting that “partners” Joneljim Construction and Halifax-based home builder Picket Fence Homes had been approved to develop the 120-hectare former industrial park.

Of course, Joneljim Construction and Picket Fence Homes are more than “partners” — they’re both owned by Kehoe (Picket Fence Homes via another firm, Elegant Homes).

But let’s stay focused on their “legitimate” 2012 offer to buy and develop Cossitt Heights. The selling price was the assessed value of the former park — $500,000. But Joneljim/Picket Fence Homes didn’t pay $500,000 cash, they paid $300,000 cash and made up the remainder by swapping a tract of land on King’s Road across from Wentworth Park (they may have thrown in a few bales of steel rope, too, I’m not sure) where the CBRM subsequently built a wastewater lift station.

Not only would Joneljim/Picket Fence Homes build 350 (!) housing units — “single detached homes, senior apartments, single-level townhouses, and semi-detached homes” — over 10 years at a cost of $51 million, they would build GREEN housing units:

Developer Sean Burke told regional council Tuesday the development will “minimize environmental footprint” by using green technologies, including wood pellet stoves, geothermal heating and solar energy in the homes.

And they were absolutely the right people for the job:

Burke, vice-president and general manager of Polysteel Atlantic Ltd., said the costs associated with the large project are well within their ability because they’ve managed similarly sized housing developments in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

(Burke’s precise connection to the Cossitt Heights development is never spelled out in the Post article, but he’s a longtime business partner of Kehoe — Cossitt Heights wasn’t even their first industrial park, they’d been part of Laurentian Energy, the company formed in 1998 to buy the Sydport Marine Industrial Park).

And boy did they wow Council:

The presentation to regional council at its monthly meeting came with detailed cost estimates of each part of the seven-phase project.

Eight apartment buildings with eight units each, the two 16-unit senior apartment buildings and one 40-unit multi-level seniors complex are expected to cost the developers $14 million. The cost to build single family homes was priced at $21 million.

Burke said each type of housing will be built at about the same time, with the hope of attracting everyone from the young family starting out to an elderly couple looking to downsize their home…

Councillors heaped praise on the development proposal and what it may mean for Sydney’s future.

The future was so bright, I’m almost ashamed to throw shade.

But I’m going to.


Asphalt dreams

Four years later, in April 2016, the CBC’s George Mortimer was reporting that:

A former industrial park site in Sydney is quickly being transformed into a major housing development.

Nothing in that sentence is particularly accurate.

We already know the site was barely ever an industrial park (Mortimer himself writes in the next paragraph that Cossitt Heights Industrial Park “failed to take off”) and three years into the 10-year project, Cossitt Heights the “major housing development” looked like this:

"A lot in Cossitt Heights is ready for construction" (George Mortimer CBC photo)

“A lot in Cossitt Heights is ready for construction” (George Mortimer CBC photo)

It wasn’t “quickly” transforming into anything. But a Joneljim spokesman was still talking a good game:

Joneljim’s controller, Everett Knickle, says all of the streets in the first and second phase of the 10 year project have been paved.

“We’re going to have the sidewalks put in; we’re going to have the power poles on each lot, then we’re going to start to build single family homes, a town house, a semi-detached and an apartment building,” he outlined.

He says the survey sticks will go in the ground for the first house in early June.

Wait, it gets better:

There are plans to build the first 25 houses this year.

Right, it took you three years to pave the streets and you still haven’t put in the sidewalks, but you’re going to build 25 houses in a single year.

Reader, they didn’t.


Slouching towards duplexes

In January 2018 (two years later) it was the Post‘s turn to visit the development and report on the veritable hive of activity it discovered under the headline:

“Build it and they may come to Sydney subdivision: Joneljim inching toward goal of selling first lots in Cossitt Heights.”

To appreciate the full glory of that headline, you need to know that in the original plan, as presented to council, the developer had promised that five years in — that is, by 2017 — he would have completed 200 housing units.

Instead of which, the photo accompanying the Post article shows three workers laying down sidewalk in the snow.

But there are reasons, of course, for this terrible lack of progress. Here are a couple of them:

Everett Knickle, a controller with Joneljim Construction, said a work crew is currently working on fixing some “deficiencies” found in manhole covers and sidewalks that were discovered after an inspection.

“We had to put sidewalks and asphalt in and all that sort of thing and it took a little longer than we expected,” said Knickle, who noted the construction equipment was also used on other projects, accounting for part of the delay in the build.

You see, it took them longer than expected to put in sidewalks because they put them in wrong the first time. And they weren’t really focused on the project because, you know, they still had five years to finish the sidewalks and build 350 housing units and they’re probably like me — they work better closer to deadline

It was all still going to be great, though — and green:

The intention is to use green technologies in the construction, including wood pellet stoves, geothermal heating and solar energy.

But this lack of anything resembling housing wasn’t going unremarked at the Civic Centre:

CBRM director of planning Malcolm Gillis said he is “surprised” that it took this long to get to this stage of development.

“They’ve done work installing services there but there’s been no development … so if it’s happening this spring, then good,” he said.

And it would it have been good, I guess, had it happened.

But it didn’t.



This month, though, almost three years to the day after his last visit to the “major housing development” that is Cossitt Heights, the CBC’s George Mortimer went back — and hit paydirt.

They’ve built a duplex.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen of the CBRM, seven years into a 10-year project that was to see construction of 350 housing units, Joneljim and Picket Fence Homes have built — A DUPLEX!

But what a duplex:

This is the first duplex built in the Cossitt Heights subdivision. (George Mortimer/CBC)

“This is the first duplex built in the Cossitt Heights subdivision.” (George Mortimer CBC photo)


Check out those solar panels! Or maybe the heating is geothermal. I don’t know, but it looks green, doesn’t it? If you squint and ignore the 4X4.

The development has been scaled back — I guess the realization that it takes seven years to build a duplex sent them back to their calculators — but only slightly. Kehoe was still promising Mortimer 300 total units although the timeline has gotten a little hinky (“over the next few years” was the phrase used).

And he’s added some interesting new twists — like, now the rental units for seniors are going to be affordable — if you can afford $1,200 a month plus utilities on your pension.

If you can’t, though, don’t worry, Kehoe promises that:

…with the help of government subsidies, apartments for seniors may be available for rent for $800 a month.

Or you could just buy one of the duplex units for $155,000.

Or…no, I can’t keep this up.

I can’t continue pretending that a) this development is ever going to materialize on anything like the scale promised or b) Jim Kehoe is motivated by a desire to provide affordable housing to Cape Breton seniors.

Let’s return to Planet Earth, shall we?


Affordable…? lol

We do need more affordable housing in the CBRM, but that need isn’t even actually most acute among seniors, as I explained back in July 2017:

Public housing in Nova Scotia has a mandate to prioritize seniors (people aged 58 and over) and families, but recent research suggests the need for housing in this province is particularly acute among single, non-seniors.

Data from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in 2011, for example, found that 12.5% of NS households were experiencing “core housing need,” meaning their current housing was “inadequate, unaffordable and/or unsuitable” and “acceptable alternative housing would absorb more than 30% of their total before-tax income.”

Of those households, “non-senior, one-person” households accounted for the biggest share — 30.5%. (Senior-led households were close behind, at 29.4%; followed by lone-parent households at 20.6%.)

Moreover, $1,200 a month plus utilities isn’t “affordable.” In fact, $800 a month plus utilities isn’t affordable. Consider the work done by Homeless Count Committee in 2016:

Source: Homelessness in CBRM, a Point in Time Count.

Source: Homelessness in CBRM, a Point in Time Count.

Note: the maximum shelter allowance from income assistance is $535 or less — which puts an $800 to $1,200 apartment well out of reach of anyone on social assistance. (Although if you’re thinking people on social assistance are probably not the target market for Cossitt Heights, I wouldn’t disagree with you, however, they are — along with pensioners — the people generally most in need of affordable housing.)

The woman who has rented Kehoe’s first unit is happy to pay $1,200 plus utilities because her last landlord was upping her rent to $2,000. That makes the apartment affordable to her — it doesn’t make it affordable.

But don’t take my word for it, read some of the comments the CBC story about the first duplex attracted on Facebook:

They need to make affordable for everyone that are on low income…my husband and [I] are on disabil[it]y and only live off of 1200 month and pay everything…lucky if we can eat…it[‘s] very sad…

Affordable? You must be out of your mind!! 1200.00 plus utilities? Seniors don’t even make 600.00 per month. Who you helping?

$800.00 still out of reach for a[] lot of single seniors. But they are beautiful.

Hope I get a raise on my pension cause I don’t even make 1200 a month

That’s more than my mortgage payment….. in Bedford.

Affordable..? lol

$1200 a month plus utilities is far from affordable for seniors or 95% of other Cape Bretoners. $800 plus utilities is beyond what I could afford to pay, a working individual with a half decent job. So, not sure who is moving in these units, but they sure have some other income besides their old age pension.

Ensuring we have more affordable housing is a job for the government, not private developers.

Especially private developers who take seven years to build a duplex.