In the next few months, HRM is going to hear a lot about Floor Area Ratios (FAR) and Planning.
What is Floor Area Ratio (FAR)? Floor space/lot size applied as a ratio for city planning is one measure of density. Sometimes it is linked to walkability, but that only occurs if a wide range of local services are available within 600 metres. If services are 1.6 Km away, then over 95% of the population will use automobile/public transportation.
When does FAR work well? It has been around since before the 1950’s. The world’s cities and their problems have not been fixed by FAR. BUT sometimes, FAR works really well. Small town models can have high FAR and good walkability scores – the key is a good mix of local services for FAR to work. High FAR scores in urban cores commonly are linked to ghettoization in North American cities due in part to poor availability of services and dependence on automobiles.
Before HRM applies FAR across Regional Centre these important questions need to be answered:
What is the current FAR for Downtown Halifax?
What is the current FAR for Downtown Dartmouth?
What is the current average FAR for all of Regional Centre, EXCLUDING the two downtowns?
It is impossible to understand the impact of policy targets on FAR if we do not know the existing FAR scores for key areas of Regional Centre. FAR targets can offer a structured goal for growth in designated areas, such as Downtowns, Centres, and Corridors, but only if HRM Planning policies reasonably support the Downtowns, Centres and Corridors as the directed areas for growth and densification.
How can Dartmouth benefit from FAR? We can copy how Seattle made FAR work for its Downtown.
Downtown Halifax has a higher existing FAR score than Downtown Dartmouth. HRM Planning could give Downtown Dartmouth business district a minimum FAR score instead of a maximum FAR score. This forces land owners and developers to meet minimum lot coverage and commercial densities that drive higher walkability scores. This creates upgraded available residential and commercial space that encourages a diversified range of services to appear all within 600 metre walking distances. Taxes on vacant lots and lots with low FAR scores in the Downtown Dartmouth business district could be charged as an additional property tax component. That would be an aggressive policy to push development into the Downtown Dartmouth business district and discourage speculative vacant land holdings. I like this approach to FAR.
Centres and Corridors can also benefit from directed development investment using split residential/commercial FAR scores as a targeted growth for services and walkability along traditional integrated town models. In Centres and Corridors, it is not realistic to impose additional property tax elements because these areas will start out with much lower FAR scores than our Downtowns. However, split residential/commercial FAR scores are desirable in the Centres and Corridors and should be positively encouraged.
By contrast, old residential neighbourhoods within HRM’s Regional Centre traditional rely on low FAR scores. Most are not within 600 metres of a diverse range of services – so walkability will NEVER be a realistic target in these areas for at least several decades. In HRM, it tends to be an older demographic that lives in the residential subdivisions, and these residents are often dependant on automobiles for basic transportation. Our Planning policy should support the diversity of needs and expectations for this key demographic. We should expect to see average FAR scores of 0.5 or less for these neighbourhoods. Policies of densification for these neighbourhoods should not focus on FAR scores, but instead, focus on facilitating intergenerational households through fast tracking the legalized in-law suites and attached units off the side or rear of the existing structure. Under the old zoning, it should be the equivalent of revising R-1 into R-2 to match current demographic needs so that extended families can share the family home, or earn additional revenue in retirement years.
What should NEVER happen is for HRM Planning to misuse FAR scores across Regional Centre by applying one single target FAR score for all of Regional Centre. Our two Downtowns are very different and our Downtown Dartmouth business district needs its own FAR score policy - setting minimums and penalizing speculative vacant land holdings. Downtown Halifax, where FAR scores for some buildings are as high as 9.5, should be left for the markets to determine, subject to design review and view planes. Our Centres should have a maximum FAR score somewhere between 1.5 for walkability and the rate to be set for Downtown Dartmouth’s business district. Our corridors should set attainable and moderate FAR scores that support walkability with a maximum residential FAR score of 1.5 in corridors, plus additional 2.0 for commercial on the ground and 2nd floors. Spot development in the Corridors does not encourage walkability, especially if it is concentrated residential development with no integrated local commercial services. By limiting corridors to a maximum of residential 1.5 FAR score, with an additional commercial maximum of 2.0 FAR, it caps the local residential development and forces a portion of commercial use to support the service corridor.
If Canso were to set a FAR score maximum of 5.0, it does not mean that Canso will outpace HRM. It just means there is no structured densification strategy in its revised Centre Plan – the result will be ad hoc 20 unit 6 storey stick (wood) frame construction (under the new building code) springing up on traditional R-1 neighbourhood lots. This will do little to increase concentration of a diversified walkable commercial service corridor. This does not fast track extended families quickly setting up in-law suites when a family member’s health fails or seniors leveraging a flat in the back for additional retirement income. Corridors and Residential Neighbourhood classifications could become a Planning distinction without a difference, with neither becoming any more walkable.