ST. JOHN’S – Newfoundland and Labrador has seen great economic benefit from offshore oil and gas developments in recent years. For the first time (since Confederation), Newfoundland is a ‘have’ province. With the province awash in oil money, Premier Danny Williams assures us that investments will be made with a vision for the future, and that we will come out of the oil boom stronger then ever before.
In St. John’s, the hub of the province’s oil driven economy, the lasting legacy of oil will come from the development which occurs during the boom. Long after the jobs and prosperity brought by oil leave, the buildings they helped construct will remain.
Fortis Properties, one of the largest companies in Newfoundland, has recently made a proposal for a redevelopment in downtown St. John’s. Fortis currently owns a 12-story building on the corner of Water street and Harbour drive (pictured below). The proposal includes plans to demolish the three buildings next to their exiting building to construct a 15-story tower. The proposed site for this new tower is in the closest block to the harbour, which makes many worry about its potential effect on views in the downtown, and the St. John’s skyline.
Stepping back and looking at the larger issue of development in St. John’s, the question becomes: What kind of a city should St. John’s become? Development regulations guide not only the type of buildings that can be constructed, but also the uses of buildings. The municipal plan extends well beyond mortar and brick, into a vision for the city encompassing the cultural fabric which makes St. John’s a vibrant, desirable place to live. While profits for companies renting out “class A” office space, such as Fortis proposes to build, are astronomical, they detract from the cultural landscape which currently exists in downtown St. John’s.
On the current footprint of the proposed Fortis tower sit an independently owned travel store, bike shop, an Asian variety store, artist studio space, and offices for non-profit organizations. These businesses, individuals, and organizations will never be able to afford the surely astronomical rents in the new luxury tower. They will be replaced by richer corporate office tenants who don’t rely on increasingly limited government funding for operation.
For lovers of sunlight in downtown St. John’s, the Fortis proposal is a turning point. The proposal is so drastically outside of current development regulations and the municipal plan [PDF], that it borders on insulting to those who helped draft these documents. If exceptions are made to allow this proposal to go ahead, the City will have no logical basis to enforce its own building regulations for the downtown heritage area. If property owners were not forced to follow regulations to maintain the historical character of old St. John’s, they would surely redevelop their own properties to maximize profit (read: height).
If changes need to be made to development regulations and the municipal plan (which is currently overdue for a review), the public needs to be involved to decide what those changes should be. Change should come as a result of long-term vision which can help St. John’s grow into something the whole city wants to see, not as a reaction to a short-sighted, profit-driven proposal from a company which has the means to drive smart, sustainable development all around this city without having to change any regulations.
It is my hope that St. John’s City Council will have the same vision Danny [Williams] is talking about, and that St. John’s ends up a better, stronger city, not just a taller one when the oil leaves this province.
A public meeting has been scheduled on the topic of “Smart Growth in Downtown St. John’s,” and will be held Feb. 8th, from 7-9pm in the Foran/Green room at City Hall. Yours truly (Andrew Harvey) will be there, and will report back here on all the goings on for all you Atlantic Spacers.
photos by Jessica Butler