Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Paradise Lost: The Evisceration of Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park

Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is a a paradise: a piece of wilderness the size of the Halifax peninsula, just 10 km from the downtown core. A mere bus ride away, it contains a series of lakes that form a complete canoe loop, and local non-profits are working to develop a trail system in the area. You can literally step into the forest behind the Kent in Bayers Lake, and lose yourself in wilderness. It's like a small piece of Kejimkujik in our backyard, and one of the many things that make Halifax a great place to live.

Most cities would give their right arm for a jewel like this: a near-urban wilderness tract that offers amazing outdoor recreational opportunities. As Tim Bousquet said in his 2009 article about the area, "It's hard to believe this place exists."

Unfortunately, this place may not exist as is much longer. Private landowners/developers are pushing to open up a significant portion of the Birch Cove Lakes to development, and the HRM is currently consulting on a facilitator's report that would allow them to do just that.

Blue Mountain and a portion of the Birch Cove Lakes are already protected as a provincial wilderness area, designated in 2009 and expanded in 2015. However, much of the remaining land is in private hands, some of it in prime lakefront or wilderness areas.

In the 2006 Regional Plan (updated in 2014), the HRM made clear its desire to create a Regional Park in Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, identified park boundaries, with the intention that private land would be acquired for inclusion in the park. Private lands within the proposed park boundaries were designated "urban reserve", meaning they were not to be developed until at least 2031.

The facilitator's report is the result of a multi-year negotiation process between the HRM and developers in an attempt to determine the boundaries of the proposed regional park, and in particular, how much private land will be purchased and added to the park. Unfortunately and unusually, the facilitator seems to have come down pretty much entirely on the side of the developers. Her conclusions would use the park boundaries as proposed by the developers, which would open up most of the remaining lakes to development, defeating one of the main purposes in creating the park in the first place. It also seems to contemplate major infrastructure to make the park more "accessible" to the public, which seems inconsistent with much of the park's status as a wilderness area. Most alarmingly, it seems to propose opening up those private lands for immediate development, which is contrary to the Regional Plan.

While the report talks a great deal about "cost" and "economic feasibility" of the park, it makes little or no reference to ecological integrity, or to water quality, biodiversity or wilderness protection, which are the primary reasons for establishing the park in the first place. It ignores the huge public benefit that a park like this provides. It also glosses over the cost to the HRM of opening up these lands for development, and the benefit to the developer of the creation of a regional park on their doorstep. It ignores the fact that HRM already has enough land available for development to meet demand for the next 28 to 35 years. There is no need to open these particular lands up for development.

Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes is already under development pressure, and HRM already lost recreational opportunities when a popular mountain biking and hiking area was cleared to allow for further expansion of Bayers Lake.

However, the long fight to protect Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is not over. There is a public presentation on the facilitator's report on Monday, June 20, 2016, at 7:00 p.m. at the Future Inns Aspin/Birch Room, 30 Fairfax Drive, Halifax, Nova Scotia. And we have until  3:00 p.m. on Monday, July 4, 2016 to submit your comments to the Municipal Clerk's office by fax, 902-490-4208; or by e-mail, clerks@halifax.ca.

I also urge people to contact the Mayor, and their regional councillor, to let them know that both the process and the proposal are deeply flawed, and that they need to stand up for Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, and a regional park that protects the entire area for now and for future generations. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to protect a jewel that most cities only dream of. Let's not let it slip through our grasp.

Monday, February 1, 2016

"Halifax is on a roll, and doesn't even know it"

There's been a lot of talk lately about reasons for leaving Halifax. Allison Sparling, who recently left the city for Toronto, penned a widely discussed blog post about the reasons she, like other young people, was leaving her hometown (she wrote an equally poignant piece about things she loves about Halifax, which didn't get enough attention). Lezlie Lowe published a piece in the Herald entitled "Halifax, please let me know: Should I stay or should I go?" capturing the tug of war that many young people feel between love of this town, and the perception of a lack of economic opportunity.

Those of you that know me know that while I am a fan of Halifax, I am not a cheerleader. If anything, at times I am quite critical of some of the city's failings. But sometimes, when being critical, one loses sight of the notion that criticism should really be aimed at making things better. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of all the good things going on around us. And sometimes it takes someone from the outside looking in to give us a dose of perspective.

A few weeks ago, I had a twitter exchange with a law school classmate, who grew up in Halifax, but now lives in Toronto. He comes back to visit a couple of times a year, and had this to say: "I don't think [Halifax] realizes it, but it's kind of on a roll right now."

He went on to talk about how the new Library fills him with hope and pride. I don't think he's alone. The Library really is a remarkable public space, and an award-winning architectural jewel that has transformed the look and feel of Spring Garden Road.

But it's not the only great public space we've added in the past few years. When I first moved to Halifax, I remember people complaining about the lack of winter recreation opportunities in the Downtown. The Oval, built as a temporary facility for the Canada Games in 2011, was so unexpectedly popular with the public, it became a permanent fixture that filled that winter gap. The Commons, which used to get pretty desolate in the winter time, has been transformed into a year round playground.

The Waterfront has also seen some significant improvements, with more to come. In summertime, the boardwalk is a great place to sit and read or people watch, and there are few better places to sit and sip a beer on a sunny day than the Stillwell Beer Garden.

I think the proposal for the Khyber Building offers the opportunity for a similarly exceptional public space, this time for the arts community. These types of spaces will attract more people back to our downtown core, to live, work and play. Let's make it happen.

Similarly, in a city which has sometimes gone out of its way to erase neighbourhood identities, we have seen the resurgence of great neighbourhoods like the North End (which is really made up of a number of great neighbourhoods) and Downtown Dartmouth, both of which have been recognized as being among Canada's great neighbourhoods.

Another area in which Halifax has arguably been punching above its weight is the restaurant scene. For a city of our size, we really have some top notch chefs and restaurants: Edna, Gio, Agricola Street Brasserie, Chives and Bicycle Thief to name but a few. I've taken friends, family and colleagues from Toronto and Vancouver to restaurants that are on par with what's they are used to getting in bigger cities, often at a fraction of the price.

Yes, the selection of international food still leaves something to be desired: good Indian can be hard to come by, and options like Malaysian food are practically nonexistent. But with the proliferation of Thai, Korean and other foods, it's a far cry from the days when Alfredo, Weinstein and Ho's was considered exotic.

And while the explosion of craft brewing isn't unique to Nova Scotia (and arrived here a bit later than most places), our Province has really come into its own in the last few years. When I moved to Halifax 9 years ago, there were 3 craft breweries total. I now count 10 in HRM, and 25 across the Province, with seemingly more opening all the time. It really is an embarrassment of riches.

All of these things; good public spaces, good neighbourhoods, a vibrant food and drink scene, are important elements in making our city an attractive place to live.

This isn't to say we don't still face challenges. Nova Scotia continues to struggle economically and demographically, the only province to have negative population growth over the last few years. That being said, despite perceptions, Halifax has done reasonably well, with relatively low unemployment and relatively strong median income compared to similar sized cities.

There is no question that Halifax doesn't necessarily have the breadth of opportunity that bigger cities offer: that is partly a function of size. But sometimes being in a smaller centre offers opportunities that wouldn't exist elsewhere. I have friends that have leadership roles, that run organizations, that influence public policy, in a way that would not be possible in larger centres.

Our transportation system also needs work. Although Halifax enjoys a fairly high proportion of people who take transit or walk to work compared to similar Canadian cities, we continue to resist and delay improvements to transit and active transportation infrastructure. Between the recent uptick in pedestrian/car collisions, and the misguided government response, it's obvious we have some work to do to make travel in our city easy safe and friendly for all users of our streets.

We still need to work on making our downtown core a more attractive place to live. Although the debates on downtown development are not as toxic as they were a few years back, and some exciting developments are moving ahead in the urban core, we need to make sure that we get the right kind of density in the right areas, in a way that supports a vibrant urban environment rather than taking away from it.

Finally, we have a challenge which is also an opportunity: Halifax has amazing near-urban wilderness, but we are at risk of losing it. Places like the Purcells Cove Backlands or Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes provide amazing wilderness recreation opportunities in location that are, in some cases, minutes from our downtown core.  But more needs to be done to protect these amazing areas from development pressures which threaten to destroy the very things that make these areas attractive to live in the first place. Coalitions like Our HRM Alliance and its member groups continue to work on policies like greenbelting that could preserve these areas for future generations, but can only do so with sufficient public support.

All of which is to say that in our desire to make our city a better place to live, we shouldn't lose sight of many of the great things we already have, but also shouldn't lose focus on some of the real challenges we face: diversifying our economy, fixing our transportation system, densifying our urban areas, and preserving our amazing outdoors, among others. A city isn't made better by blind optimism, but it isn't made better by relentless pessimism either.

Halifax: you're on a bit of a roll. Let's keep things moving forward.