Dartmouth's Main Street District: HRM's New Growth Centre

February 10, 2020
Economic Development & Site Selection<< Home

Dartmouth’s Main Street District is poised to become HRM’s newest growth centre.

The transformation of what’s now known as the “Village on Main” has the potential to accommodate 8,000 people living in a more sustainable and less car-dependent community. An overview of Main Street statistics shows:

  • 20 new businesses set up shop in 2019 bringing the total number of businesses in the District to about 170.
  • Over the past 5 years, about 50% of the properties have made re-development inquiries.
  • Dartmouth East has one of the lowest vacancy rates in HRM (0.6%) and in 2020 it is expected that 5 new buildings will break ground providing some 500 housing units.
  • The estimated value of those projects is $108 million (residential value only).
  • More properties (i.e. a 2nd wave) will start construction in 2021.

There are three reasons why Main Street is experiencing this transformation. Let's call these the District’s community building blocks: (1) HRM and the community got the urban planning right (2) A Business Improvement District drives the process, and (3) Social Planning is an important part of the transformation.

1. HRM and the Community Got The Urban Planning Right

HRM adopted changes to the Dartmouth Land Use By-law in late 2013. Unlike larger one-size-fits-all planning approaches, this planning process was community-based. The main elements include:

  • Clearly defined as-of-right height limits for all buildings
  • Workable ‘form-based code’ - a set of building design standards that is not too prescriptive
  • A mixed-use development scenario for Main Street itself, where new buildings will be brought flush to sidewalks, and where residential uses will be built on top of ground floor commercial uses, and
  • For non-profit housing projects, no need to provide parking, representing a potential reduction of some 15-20% in construction costs.

Main Street has the potential to become a mixed-income housing district, and it is already supporting vulnerable populations as identified in our National Housing Strategy. They include seniors and mental health consumers and soon: women and children fleeing family violence.

2. The Main Street Community Improvement District

The Main Street Community Improvement District (CID) is a Business Improvement District set up in 2009. It is funded by an area rate paid by property owners in the District, project grants, and a $5,000 annual grant from Halifax Regional Municipality.

One key ingredient is the involvement of Dalhousie Planning students who bring vitality and innovation to the Main Street re-development process and vision.

The CID functions as an interface between its members, governments, and the community, including some 30,000 people living in adjacent residential areas.

The CID’s economic development role cannot be overstated. The organization provides an important interface with investors including developers, entrepreneurs and small businesses being attracted to the District. To help facilitate investment, the CID uses interactive tools to simplify what can often be a complex planning approval system. While Main Street’s zoning is simpler than in other HRM communities, it still needs to be interpreted, and investors are often surprised to learn that they can obtain planning approvals with a relatively quick turn-around, providing they meet the zoning rules.

3. Social Planning Is An Important Part Of The Growth Agenda

Main Street aspires to be a complete community where all segments of society are respected and supported.

One of the first investors in the District was Affirmative Ventures – a social enterprise and mental health organization that opened its first housing project in 2007. Today the organization manages 5 social enterprises from its central location on Main Street; its clients are often employed by local businesses; and its housing model now includes shared housing in other parts of Dartmouth and Cole Harbour.

Affirmative Ventures is planning a 45 unit affordable housing project (called the Main Street Centre) for seniors and mental health consumers. The housing units will be built over a ground floor ‘social enterprise hub’.

Construction will start soon on Bryony House – an emergency shelter for abused women and children. One of the reasons why Bryony House decided to locate in the District is the concentration of health and wellness services, which happens to be the highest in the Maritimes. These health assets have led to another social planning innovation: Main Street is the first community in HRM to have adopted an Age Friendly Community Plan.

The 2017 Age Friendly Community Plan is one of the driving forces associated with the community’s re-development, so much so that the CID has adopted it as their strategic plan. In other words, all community development initiatives underway in the District are being viewed through an “8 to 80” lens.

Some Final Thoughts and Questions

Does Main Street’s transformation hold potential for other urban, suburban and rural communities in Halifax Regional Municipality? Perhaps, but in order to replicate this model, the building blocks need to be understood and the Municipality needs to consider the following questions:

  1. Do HRM’s secondary and regional planning processes – those which cover large geographical areas - adequately capture the goals and aspirations of different communities being planned within those areas?
  2. To what extent does Halifax Regional Municipality support and promote Business Improvement Districts as part of its overall economic development agenda?

Hopefully other communities will be able to find the right combination of urban planning, economic development and social planning that will address their needs.

The work now underway in Dartmouth’s Main Street District is proof positive that local action can make a difference and that communities matter.

- David Harrison, MCIP

David Harrison has been actively involved in Main Street’s transformation.  He is project manager for Affirmative Ventures’ housing projects and won a national housing award in 2008 for his work on mental health housing. He developed a business plan and oversaw site selection for the Bryony House shelter. He was a member of the planning team for The Garden View development project and facilitated the development of Main Street’s Age Friendly Community Plan.

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David Harrison

David Harrison is an urban planner and development consultant based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.


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