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Halifax, here and now

Developers have a big vision for the city. But living in the present has its perks, too.

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A freelance journalist and author, Jack has had his work published in both Canada and the U.S. He is currently finishing his second novel. He was an all-star football player in high school, served briefly as a placekicker with the University of Miami Hurricanes and once had an unsuccessful try-out with the Toronto Argonauts.

A freelance journalist and author, Jack has had his work published in both Canada and the U.S. He is currently finishing his second novel. He was an all-star football player in high school, served briefly as a placekicker with the University of Miami Hurricanes and once had an unsuccessful try-out with the Toronto Argonauts.

A city’s skyline is its first and most enduring impression. The stunning skyline of San Francisco has been compared to the initial glance of a beautiful woman. The first encounter can forever linger in the imagination.

Halifax may not be the most attractive city in the world (though, of course, the natural world around it is beautiful—the sea, the rocky lay of the land, the iridescent sky). The Haligonian skyline may not set aflutter the hearts of tourists and visiting businessmen. The city doesn’t scintillate with urban sleekness the way Montreal, London or San Francisco do. It doesn’t inspire songs or romantic novels. There are no jetsetters like Brad and Angelina who call the city home (although Jack Nicholson is rumoured to have a summer home nearby).

Instead, Halifax maintains a pleasant, though historically vague, kind of “here I am” quality that seems to have one foot in the present and one foot in the past. For an area so rich in history, it is amazing that so many relics of the region’s historical past have been allowed to fall apart. Barrington Street, the city’s main drag and tourist mecca, seems to have enough empty storefronts to serve as a good backdrop for a depression era documentary.

Nonetheless, according to Louis Lemoine, Halifax is in a position to soon join the ranks of some of the world’s great cities. “I believe that if the city plays its cards right, Halifax may be on the verge of a real renaissance in urban development.”

Lemoine knows what he is talking about. He is the vice-president of the Polycorp Group of Companies, the developer of Q Loft, luxury condominiums featuring an “elegant minimalism” that will still offer loads of comfort and urban style. Located in the up and coming Agricola neighbourhood at James and Roberts Streets, Q Lofts is on track to open late next summer.

I recently met him at Q Loft’s presentation centre on Agricola Street where he showed me some of the features of the stylish, high-end European-style lofts. “What we did was take an old industrial building that was well past its age of usefulness and designed a modern building with spectacular finishings,” say Lemoine. “We are trying to raise the bar in the community along with a lot of entrepreneurs and community residents, challenging ourselves to do better. It is really exciting to see what is happening here.”

A 72-unit condominium building with each unit being designed to take up two levels, Q Lofts will feature state-of-the-art floor heating and cooling ventilation systems that will use solar and greywater heat recovery to conserve energy, resulting in low costs and a green-friendly lessening of the carbon footprint.

“The big cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York, and Chicago, attract larger economies and offer more opportunities,” says Lemoine. “But Halifax offers the same, though on a much smaller scale. We do cutting-edge design, architecture, and energy management right here.”

Along with scores of other area business leaders, Lemoine is looking forward to the tangible effects that the recently won shipbuilding contract will have for the area. “It’s going to happen,” he says. “It may take another 18 to 24 months. It’s just not happening as fast as a lot of people had hoped.”

But there are changes going on in the city that Lemoine says are already the start of something truly great, pointing to such projects as the Seaport and the South End, as well as the Nova Centre, the Cunard Centre, and the beginnings of revitalization in the Gottingen Street area. “There are a lot of exiting things happening in the city,” he says. You just have to look around a bit. Having a little patience helps, too.”

It also helps if you know where to find these urban development success stories. “Already there are a lot people from all over the area who love to come to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings,” he says. “It gives them the opportunity to participate in the life of the city, to buy local goods, and enjoy the beauty of the area. This is what you want for a vibrant urban community.”

A 1978 graduate of Dalhousie University in architecture, Lemoine left the Halifax area shortly after completing his studies, heading to Vancouver to pursue his architectural dreams. “There just weren’t a lot of opportunities for young people here at the time,” he explains. He returned to Halifax in 1997 after nearly two decades out west and is still working to make a difference in the community.

The problem, in the past and in the present, is that old bugaboo: red tape. “City government needs to create a system of streamlining the development process,” says Lemoine. “The business and entrepreneur class needs predictability. We can’t have an open-ended process if we can’t count on the future. There needs to be a willingness to make changes in the development approval time.”

All this is certainly a good thing. But I like Halifax, old, new, good, bad, exciting or indifferent. For me what has always been important is the interior atmosphere of a city; the elusive sense of vibrancy I feel while strolling neighbourhoods, dining in local eateries, and enjoying its nightspots. A city—any city—has an aura of “who, where, and when” that is easily perceptible though often hard to describe. This is what gives a place its sense of “here-ness,” its defining characteristics. (Of course, this is not always a pleasant experience. Walking the streets of my hometown of Buffalo, New York, for example, can feel like a gut punch, both literally and figuratively.) Halifax is a city loaded with a sense of “here-ness.”

Halifax has sometimes been called the “San Francisco of the east.” As we all know, San Francisco is a city heavily invested in myth where—according to popular song—you may leave your heart, particularly on a “warm San Franciscan night,” and if she likes you, she will “open up her Golden Gates.”

For me, that’s too much pressure. Let Halifax be Halifax. Vive le Halifax.

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