April 22nd, 2008

Don’t just listen to public meetings

By ROGER TAYLOR Business Columnist
The Chronicle Herald

HALIGONIANS aren’t as negative as some would have us believe.

At least that’s how the Greater Halifax Partnership views it following the release of a Bristol Omnifacts Research public opinion survey Monday.

The survey was working on the premise that, among other things, rejecting the bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games had placed a negative pall over the city.

Well, I don’t necessarily agree with the premise because I think rejecting the Games was the proper decision, but nevertheless the study came up with some interesting conclusions.

One of the conclusions is that the majority of Halifax residents believe growth is a good thing and that the majority of people in tony south-end Halifax support high-rise development.

Surprisingly, it is the people in other parts of Halifax Regional Municipality who are less enthused by tall buildings.

Fred Morley, Greater Halifax Partnership’s executive vice-president and chief economist, says the survey offers a better indication of how people truly feel about development in the city than the public meetings do.

While the public meetings are an important opportunity to allow people to vent their opinions, it would be wrong to base public policy purely on the response created at the public meetings, he suggests.

That’s because the research questions are created to provide an accurate indication of true public opinion. The Bristol Omnifacts survey is considered to be accurate within two percentage points of what the public is thinking.

Morley says public meetings can be stacked by one group or another to give the impression that a large number of people believe, for instance, that most development in the downtown should be limited to six storeys or less.

The Greater Halifax Partnership, which is a private-public partnership created to encourage economic development in Halifax, is anxious to get the message out about the true opinion of city residents. I tend to agree.

Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader who is opposed to any downtown high-rise buildings being built because the reader fears it would lead to the destruction of many heritage buildings.

The reader may be unhappy to learn that the majority of people don’t seem to fear high-rise development to the same degree. But the reader may be encouraged to know that an overwhelming 94 per cent of people in the survey believe building design and appearance are of supreme importance.

One of the big things the heritage backers use to sell their case for low-rise development in the downtown is the tourists who visit Halifax because of its heritage. But there isn’t any proof that careful development cannot co-exist with heritage buildings.

In fact, the greater density created by modern development may help to save the heritage buildings because their age and small stature make so-called heritage structures less economical to operate.

I think most people will agree that Halifax needs to be an interesting place to live, not only visit. An interesting city will attract new business and create an atmosphere where young, educated people want to stay.

A realistic view of downtown Halifax today would suggest that this is a community in decay.

There are plenty of developers itching to build in the downtown and this is a good thing for the downtown and the city as a whole; that is unless they are held up by the seemingly arbitrary nature of HRM by Design height restrictions.

( herald.ca)