Inspired by the Past, Built for the Future: Managing Halifax’s Properties & Heritage

May 25, 2018

Originally published in the Journal of Property Management, Sept/Oct 2017 Issue:

By the IREM Global Services Department, with special thanks to Bruce Basset, FRI, Ernie Buote, FRI, Dawn Dauphinee, FRI, Lori Smith, Stacy Wentzell, FRl, and Theresa Salsman, CPM, ARM, for their contributions to this article.

HALIFAX NOVA SCOTIA HAS A RICH HISTORY THAT WON’T SOON BE FORG0TTEN, ESPECIALLY IF THE LOCAL POPULATION HAS ANYTHING TO SAY ABOUT IT. Settled by the British in 1749, the city is situated along the Halifax Harbour, one of the biggest natural harbours in the world. As a result, Halifax has always had a special bond with the sea, and this maritime history-which includes serving as the processing port for immigrants to Canada-is an important aspect of the city’s identity. Even as Halifax faces its cur­rent development boom, local developers and property managers make it a priority to preserve the city’s distinctiveness as a maritime hub and the gateway to Canada.

Up until World War I, Halifax was well known as a prospering metropolis much like Boston and other major harbour cities, but in December 1917, everything changed.

The SS Mont-Blanc, a cargo ship filled with dynamite and benzene, a highly volatile mixture, crashed into another ship while sailing in the Halifax Har­bour. The benzene ignited, and the re­sulting explosion destroyed the majori­ty of the city. In fact, the blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the detonation of nuclear weapons. The city had to be significantly re­built after this disaster, and the mental­ity to preserve what survived and make it stronger continues to characterize Halifax’s real estate.

“The Halifax explosion is a significant event in our history, specifically for the way it affected the look of the city,” said Dawn Dauphinee, FRI. Buildings can be characterized as those from before and those from after the ex­plosion. Along with traditional building materials, a new type of stone, introduced after the explosion, became a fixture of the Halifax look. Hydrostone, named after a special type of concrete block resistant to fire, for example, was used to rebuild an entire neighborhood.

“Taking on management of a heritage property is certainly a lengthy process,” said Theresa Salsman, CPM. “The Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) holds prop­erty managers and owners to strict guidelines when it comes to heritage properties. Owners and property managers are required to submit detailed applications for any work to the building’s exterior for Heritage Staff Review. The application has to in­clude a site plan, an elevation drawing for each facade to be altered, and current and historical photographs. If Heritage Staff are unable to approve the application based on the guidelines, the application is forwarded to the Heritage Advisory Committee for Review. If the committee does not recommend approval, the application may be forwarded to the HRM Council for review. Needless to say, it can delay the project.”

Having to deal with the red tape of a heritage site certainly can prove frustrating and expensive for property managers and developers, but market demand to live and work in such properties encourag­es real estate practitioners to take them on. The city is dotted with both com­mercial and residential sites carefully built to preserve historical structures.

One such example is the RBC Wa­terside Centre, a new property near the downtown boardwalk. Occupying an entire city block, the Waterside Centre was built on the site of the existing 19th century commercial building already standing on the site. Although these buildings were destroyed to make room for the modern, nine-story retail and office building, the original facades were preserved in order to retain the original look, and it is now one of the only entire blocks of heritage buildings in Halifax that remains intact.

Opened in 2014, the RBC Waterside Centre represents the city’s compro­mise to move ahead with developing cutting-edge facilities while still pre­serving the look of Halifax’s traditional buildings.

The property was built with state-of-the-art technology, ensuring energy efficiency and maximum use of space. Some features include an automation system which monitors air quality, smart building temperature controls, and pas­senger car elevators in the garage.

According to Lori Smith, manager, Public Affairs, Atlantic Canada, RBC Bank, “We see Waterside Centre as a wonderful marriage of past and future. It allows us to stay in the downtown core which is close to our historical roots­RBC began as the Merchant’s Bank of Halifax in 1864 on the waterfront just down from where we are now. It is ac­cessible and convenient for our clients and employees who were accustomed to our previous location. It gives us un­paralleled visibility that comes through naming this world class building, which was also the first new office structure in the city in almost 20 years. And choos­ing a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold standard building with day-lighting technology, high-efficiency air handling and heat recovery ventilation systems, aligns well with our environmental priorities. We are proud to be able to provide our staff and our clients with such a leading edge facility in which to work and conduct their business.”

From a residential standpoint, the Garden Crest Apartments structure was the first apartment building in Nova Scotia and one of the earliest in the country, earning it municipal heritage property status on December 16, 1986, and provincial heritage property status on October 16, 1989. The newly opened Garden Crest Condomini­ums is an upscale condominium property built on the site of the original structure.

During the demolition and rebuilding process, the front facade was the only part of the original apartment building left standing. Due to its multiple heritage designations, the Halifax Regional Municipality was adamant that the facade be preserved and incorporated into the new structure, despite the developer’s offer to complete an architectural survey and build an exact replica. The developers preserved the original building facade by attaching the more contemporary style tower to the back, with an entryway to pass from old to new-a perfect metaphor for this modern city that remains devotedly loyal to its origins. “All and all a very challenging project, yet the finished product has become one of Halifax’s finest condominium projects,” said Stacy Wentzell, FRI, who served as the sales broker.

A beautiful city with a fascinating past and a bright future, managing property in Halifax is no easy feat. Property managers must walk the thin line between pre­serving the historical significance of the property and meeting the needs of tenants for modern day conveniences and updated spaces. However, with just a short walk along the boardwalk or through one of the preserved downtown streets, it is easy to see the evidence that Halifax has its own special blend of modernity and preserved culture that makes the added challenges worthwhile.