Saint John – a tale of two projects

This feature first appeared in the Summer 2011 National Issue of Spacing Magazine.

SAINT JOHN – Saint John, like many other cities its size, has suffered immensely from suburbanization over the past few decades. The city has struggled with skyrocketing property taxes and inadequate service delivery as thousands have moved away from the  core — the city’s population is an estimated 70,000, yet the daytime population is approximately 122,000 once people from the surrounding bedroom communities arrive downtown for work. However, two major projects currently underway in Saint John could reinvigorate the city and serve as a model for other Maritime communities that are facing similar predicaments.

One revitalization project offers something rare: an opportunity to open up six acres of urban waterfront in the heart of Uptown Saint John. The property, a former Coast Guard site, is currently off limits to the public and its waterfront is inaccessible, but the Halifax-based developer Hardman Group is hoping to change this. Their mixed-use proposal includes a hotel tower, residential and educational buildings, and public spaces to be developed piecemeal over ten years. While it’s clear that opening up the site’s waterfront and extending the street grid would have a significant impact upon the quality of life for city residents, gentrification of the nearby South End — a low income priority neighbourhood — is a significant concern.

Another predominantly lower income priority neighbourhood, the Old North End, is the focus of a different kind of revitalization project entitled ONE Change. This community-led initiative is based on the principle that it is imperative that the community prescribes its own calls to action. The project has laid out ambitious plans emphasizing “think big” ideas, as well as smaller community projects which will serve to increase neighbourhood ownership and build community resiliency. Amongst the host of projects listed: attracting mixed-income residential developments; renovating existing housing stock; revitalizing Main Street; and supporting community gardens. It is clear, though, that a number of the ONE Change proposals will require, and may be at the behest of, financial and policy support by philanthropic and public sector entities.

These two projects, while markedly different in how they approach development, have the same goal: to encourage growth, engender pride, and provide a sense of ownership in those that choose to live in the city. If Saint John is to thrive, it must provide compelling reasons and opportunities for people to live within the urban core; these two initiatives can be part of the prescription.

Managing Editor for Spacing Atlantic
Photo by Gillian Barfootmember of Spacing Atlantic’s flickr pool.

One comment

  1. I think Saint John is a city where re-populating the core will be a very difficult task. The first issue is that Greater Saint John has had a stagnant population for decades – it’s not a question of where to put growth, it’s where to distribute the population. Until the Saint John economy starts to diversify beyond its traditional industrial base there will be little population growth in the region. With no growth, one community can only grow by outcompeting neighbouring municipalities. Unfortunately Saint John has some real disadvantages compared to its suburban neighbours: higher taxes, old infrastructure, an enormous pension deficit, and one of the highest poverty rates in Canada.
    Because its an old, central city, Saint John also doesn’t offer a lot of new single family homes – you find those in the suburbs. The new Municipal Plan will further reduce the number of new single family homes built within the city limits. The City is hoping to compete by offering urban options, such as small lot single family, townhomes, apartments, condos, etc. But is there a big enough market? Personally I don’t see the demographics that drive that market in Saint John, but we will see. You can improve Uptown, North End, South End all you want, but if the market is essentially looking for suburban housing you’re not going to change that. Add in the other big disadvantages found in Saint John and I think it’s really an uphill battle.

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