Bad for Business?

This morning, I am going to take on some of the hot takes I’ve seen on CBRM council’s recent waterfront development decision.

As you probably know by now, during last Tuesday’s meeting, council, rather than entertaining a new proposal from Martin Chernin’s Harbour Royale Development Ltd (HRDL), opted to issue a new call for proposals for property it owns on the Sydney waterfront between the Holiday Inn and the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion (leaving it undeveloped, allowing us a view of the harbor, not being an option apparently ).


Red tape (1)

The first hot take — and one of the most puzzling — is that this a case of “red tape” run amuck.

People making this argument either don’t know what actually happened or don’t know what “red tape” is because what happened is that Martin Chernin’s pre-development contract expired, council refused to grant him (another) extension, Chernin met with CAO Marie Walsh and regional solicitor Demetri Kachafanas and worked out a new deal — one that involved the outright sale of land to Chernin — and Walsh and Kachafanas took this to an in camera session of council.

Refusing, as council did, to consider that deal and instead issuing a new request for proposals is not an issue of “red tape.”


Red tape (2)

An actual “red tape” issue would be one in which a municipal by-law or planning regulation stopped a developer from doing what they wanted to do and here, a brief history of Chernin’s waterfront development plans is in order.

Chernin’s Harbour Royale Development Limited (HRDL) has been planning developments for this section of the Sydney waterfront since at least 2004 — that is, for at least 17 years. It all began, according to an editorial in the 25 March 2006 edition of the Cape Breton Post, when:

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 North End secondary planning strategy, which proposed protecting six harbor viewplanes in the district (this to avoid further developments like the seniors’ high rise that blocks the viewplane from Prince Street and the former Department of Fisheries building that blocks 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. [Note: those hot links are to Cape Breton Post articles written before it became a SaltWire property and no longer work.]

The building was to be a residential tower with a commercial “anchor tenant.” In addition to asking council to allow him to break the rule regarding building height, Chernin also asked council to allow him to ignore rules regarding construction materials. Council obliged.

Chernin’s plan also violated one of the design principals laid out in the Ekistics’ plan for the Sydney waterfront (adopted in 2014), 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.

The CBRM supported Chernin’s project, besides rewriting the rules they’d written for him in 2006, they set 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 (publicly) of this 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.

And then, in 2017, Chernin abandoned this standalone residential tower in favor of a waterfront development proposal that included two towers (one office, one residential), an expanded Holiday Inn housing a casino, a marine interpretive center and a PUBLIC LIBRARY. Council accepted this proposal, putting a private developer in charge of a public building — does that look like an excess of “red tape” to you?

The initial contract was for 18 months and he was given an 18-month extension.

That second extension expired in June and although HRDL claims to have put a lot of time and money into this project, when they came to council to request yet another extension, they had literally nothing to show for themselves. We heard nothing about progress with the  Holiday Inn expansion, the casino move or the marine interpretive center. We heard nothing from the other “members” of the waterfront development group, who, in the initial proposal, were said to include Dennis Campbell of Ambassatours, the Westmont Hospitality Group (owner of the Holiday Inn, misidentified in Chernin’s proposal as the “Westmount Hotel Group”) or Canderel — the Montreal real estate development firm that used to be part of another great waterfront development, Albert Barbusci’s Novaporte.

Instead, we heard various representatives of HRDL complain that council wasn’t moving forward fast enough with the public library.

Council declined to extend the contract, so Chernin negotiated a new one with Walsh and Kachafanas, who brought it to council during an in camera session.

Council refused to consider it in camera, so it was on the agenda for last week’s regular council meeting, during which council opted instead to issue a new request for proposals for its waterfront property.


World stage

Adrian White

Adrian White

This is a very specific take, offered by Adrian White in Tuesday’s edition of the Post:

Cape Breton is again in the international news for all the wrong reasons. Our municipal council looks like they are totally inexperienced when it comes to managing relations with established business leaders and developers.

I feel pretty confident in assuring White that the world is not watching.

And luckily for him, I doubt anyone outside CBRM is reading his thoughts on how unionized labor is responsible for Cape Breton’s struggling economy. (Note to self: send White a “Happy Striketober” card.)


Dissing Chernin

A very common response has been to fault the CBRM for “insulting” Martin Chernin, who pays $1 million in taxes.

But I read that as an argument in favor of different rules for the wealthy and powerful.

And I don’t buy it.


Bad for Business

Adrian White (and others) are also saying that this decision sends a message that CBRM is not friendly to business.

Putting aside the entire history of industrial Cape Breton and the dominant neoliberal ideology that has ensured few places in the entire world have been unfriendly to business over the past 40 years, let’s focus on White’s formulation of this argument:

We need immigrant entrepreneurs and private foreign investment to grow our economy. Last week’s headlines discourage that.

But wouldn’t an “immigrant entrepreneur” or “private foreign” investor watching what unfolded last week take heart, knowing that even established developers like Chernin have to play by the same rules they do?


Danny Ellis

Danny Ellis isn’t an argument anyone put forth, he’s just Danny Ellis, a man who has managed a couple of his own quiet deals with CBRM — renting the municipal land underneath his waterfront beer garden and turning a public meeting room at the Civic Centre into a restaurant — and yet, there he is in the Post complaining about how difficult it is to do business in CBRM.

I can’t even.