Vice Blog

How One Rich Guy Is Razing an Entire Halifax Neighborhood to Build a Parking Lot

The plan, while wildly unpopular, is completely legal.

by Julia Wright
May 30 2016, 8:16pm

All photos by Emily St. Pierre

The North End of Halifax is an area rich with history, particularly for Halifax's black community, many of whom relocated there after the destruction of nearby Africville. In recent years, it's become an eclectic mix of hole-in-the-wall brunch joints, microbreweries, independent coffee roasters, and increasingly rare affordable housing units. It's home to many families and retirees. Some of the colourful, two-storey wooden homes on May Street, Fern Lane, McCully and North Streets have stood for over a hundred years on a streetscape punctuated by hanging flower baskets and tall, old trees that survived the Halifax Explosion. Soon, however, a lot of these buildings will be history.

The Colonial Honda dealership on busy, mixed-commercial Robie Street, acquired late last year by Steele Auto Group, is expanding: a project that, according to Steele, necessitates razing 17 homes—a significant swath of the current streetscape.

Steele, after acquiring Colonial Honda, also quietly bought up properties on the surrounding blocks, a plan The Coast uncovered in February. Residents on May Street and elsewhere received handwritten letters asking whether they were interested in selling their homes—inquiries many ignored, given they were offered only slightly above market value. Since then, they've perhaps had reason to regret that decision: the surrounding homes will soon be demolished to make way for what Steele describes as "additional inventory display," but which most people would call a massive, asphalt parking lot.

After the plan became public, residents started an online petition that gained over 1,700 signatures. They formed a Facebook group called Homes Not Hondas, then started a poster campaign with the slogan "Don't Steele Our 'Hood." Colonial Honda's site has been flooded with one-star reviews, and art and a video campaign have been created against what they see as a blatantly disrespectful, corporate destruction of a vibrant neighborhood. More recently, some have started linking hands in protest around soon-to-be-demolished buildings, and calling for the deployment of other, old-school disruptive tactics including jamming Steele's phone lines with complaints and physically blocking the way of excavation equipment.

Although Colonial Honda has created their own Facebook group and micro-site attempting to address concerns over green space and noise buffering, and brought in Habitat for Humanity to reclaim usable building materials, some neighbours say the Steele Auto Group has come across as "dickish" and "tone-deaf."

Tristan Cleveland works at the Ecology Action Centre on the corner of May and Fern Streets, which underwent a substantial renovation this spring. After Steele's plans are complete, the Centre's brand-new, energy-efficient headquarters, poised to be "one of the greenest office buildings in Canada," according to Cleveland will, ironically, overlook the massive car lot.

"We invested in this corner because we believe this is a really wonderful neighborhood, a great place where a lot of people want to live, stay, and invest," he says. "So this is obviously super disappointing."

Rob Steele, the Chad-Krogeresque multi-millionaire auto oligarch whose empire spans 19 car dealerships across Atlantic Canada—the main man behind the development—has remained notably AWOL through all this, declining media interviews and residents' requests to meet. While representatives from Steele Auto Group have attended public consultations, and the company has agreed to take noise and light-pollution mitigating measures, Steele himself has remained behind the gates of his sweet waterfront mansion where there is a) definitely a lot of green space and b) not any giant parking lots interfering with his view.

Steele Auto Group COO Dave MacRitchie also turned down an interview with VICE, instead providing a written statement on May 26:

"Colonial Honda is carrying out this expansion to establish a modern dealership that better meets the needs of our customers. Many of our customers live in the centre of the city, as do many of our employees. They want to shop, work, drive, live, walk, and buy automobiles and get them serviced on the peninsula.

This is no surprise. Peninsular Halifax has been a mixed commercial-residential area since the city was founded in 1749. This area is zoned commercial and we have obtained the necessary permits to expand our business. Still, we know and respect that some of our neighbours oppose this expansion. We are committed to completing the work in a way that limits the impact on our immediate neighbours.

The project design also respects the neighbours' concerns about how our expanded business will look. Along the residential streets adjoining our property, the project includes wrought-iron fencing, green landscaping, and sensitive lighting."

Despite that bit about respecting people's right to oppose the expansion, Steele has taken a heavy-handed approach with some dissenters. On May 4, Matthew Brand, founder of satirical blog The Brand Review, got a cease-and-desist from a high-priced Halifax lawyer the same day he published an article headlined "Steele Group Launches Hondas Not Homes Campaign." A stay-at-home dad who gets "on a good day, like 100" pageviews, Brand says he "broke out into a cold sweat" and immediately deleted the post. Tristan Cleveland of the Ecology Action Center also got a cease and desist letter for retweeting Brand's article: he, too, deleted. "I wanted to err on the side of caution, he says. "It would be one thing if it was just me, but I didn't want to put the organization I work for at risk. "

In Brand's view, Steele's sending out scary legal letters is an extension of the auto group's pave-over-everything-in-our-way expansion model. "My voice is such a small voice, I don't know what they're hoping to gain. The sad thing is that they're probably going to be successful." A number of national media outlets subsequently picked up Brand's story, which raises some interesting questions about when satire, or parody, constitutes protected speech. Ironically, since then, The Brand Review has gotten way more hits. "Whatever they were trying to stop me from doing," he says, "the cease-and-desist letter exponentially increased the attention."

The development has also bitterly divided neighbors horrified by the expansion and those who stand to benefit from it. Joshua Lampkey, 38, who runs Grindhouse Blade Care & Ware directly beside Steele Honda, doesn't necessarily see the demolitions as a bad thing.

"Every one of them is a complete dump," he says of the soon-to-be gone houses on North Street, where he's lived and worked for three years. "They're completely falling apart." He pushes on one of the bannisters: it wobbles crazily. "It's all eaten by termites. There's a mold problem."

Greg Hayes, owner of Hayes Antiques on McCully Street for the past 30 years, also calls the soon-to-be-demolished buildings on his street a bunch of "dumps."

"I'm happy to see all those rat-infested houses go," he says, claiming "they were all crack houses, grow-ops, buddy selling pills or whatever. Now somebody's gonna do something positive and get rid of them."

Hayes says the apartments on McCully, which an absentee landlord is rumoured to have sold for six figures, were a magnet for the worst kind of tenants. "There was nobody protesting when our windows got smashed out, or when we got firebombed by crackheads, or when me and my customer's vehicles got broken into. Nobody cared." He admits the houses on May and Fern Streets didn't have the same issue with criminal activity. "That's not my business. I consider what is in front of my place to be my business."

Further, according to Lampkey, he received "full disclosure" when he started renting that he might have to clear out on short notice if the buildings were sold. When Steele bought them, he says, "the compensation was generous": several months free rent, and a full refund on the damage deposit. All tenants are being asked to leave by June 30.

David Leblanc had lived at 2678 Fern Lane for over 22 years when he agreed to sell his house to Steele for $390,000. "For me, it was extremely worth it," he says, adding he bought a new, cheaper place 6 blocks away. "I think it's an opportunity to clean up the neighborhood a little bit."

He says the true magnitude of community opposition to the project has been exaggerated by social media-savvy protesters. "If you manipulate things it looks like there's a great big community effort to save these houses. But none of the people who show up for the protests have any financial stake whatsoever in what's going on here."

Even vocal supporters of the development, however, don't exactly see the planned parking lot as the greatest thing for the North End. These houses are very dilapidated and they need to go," says Lampkey, "but yeah, putting a parking lot on top of it is a bit of a blow to the community. It's not hitting that urban density mandate at all." Most also agree that May Street, a largely owner-occupied and well-maintained stretch of colorful saltbox houses, is getting particularly screwed over by the surrounding demolitions.

That being said, it's not like anyone but Steele was exactly rushing to fix up the 'hood. As Leblanc puts it, "the houses on the other side of Colonial Honda have been empty for months, if not years. The property has been for sale, and nobody wanted it. Nobody wanted to spend the money needed to rebuild."

The thing is, Steele's plan, while unpopular, is in compliance with Halifax's late-1970s-era land use bylaws. While the blocks around Robie Street are, these days, mixed residential, the area is zoned C-2—a.k.a., as a General Business Zone, meaning "any business or commercial enterprise except when the operation of the same would cause a nuisance or a hazard to the public" is allowed. Since the land is privately owned, and Steele's intended use complies with the area's current zoning, there's not a lot that people can realistically do to stop the development save, say, chaining themselves to the road. Although Halifax is currently undertaking its Centre Plan to update the decades-old land-use bylaws and bring them up to date with more progressive urban planning principles, all that's going to come too late to save the houses in the North End, none of which have heritage designations.

"Colonial Honda is taking advantage of old thinking, where expanding a car lot would be beneficial to the city, instead of a new way where giving back to the city is the best way to live," says Brenden Sommerhalder, who is running for council in District 8-Peninsula North and started the online petition. "We're seeing older industries taking advantage of this, knowing that in the future those options will no longer be available to them."

Halifax South Downtown councillor Waye Mason posted the following on a Reddit forum about the expansion,

"What we are seeing is zoning that was put in place in the 1950s and 1970s finally being acted on because there is enough money in the community to see historic mansions torn down, or a block of homes torn down.

"So this doesn't make it right, but it does make it hard to stop."

With demolition crews and heavy equipment arriving on site over the weekend, all signs point to crews going full "Big Yellow Taxi" on the properties this week: despite the best efforts of some neighbours, the destruction of this piece of Halifax's old-school, two-storey signature residential fabric seems imminent. Whether the project, scheduled for completion by the end of 2016, will, as Steele claims, represent a "marked improvement" for the neighborhood remains to be seen.

"If my objective is to sell more cars, then displaying more inventory is the way to do that," says Sommerhalder. "But as a corporate citizen, you need to weigh the potential profit from a move against how it affects the community, and anger is definitely the sentiment."

"We're losing a residential community that's over 100 years old, and we can never, ever get it back."

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