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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

An (obstructed) vision for the future of St. John’s

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The three buildings that would be destroyed under the Fortis proposal
The three buildings that would be demolished under the Fortis proposal

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.

The current Fortis building, next to the three buildings which would be demolished to make way for a 15-storey tower
The current Fortis building, far left, next to three buildings which would be demolished to make way for a 15-storey tower

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



  1. If the old downtown isn’t going to accomodate the needs of the 21st century, one answer is to build another downtown; now that’s a really tall order (no pun intended). Try anything new in St. John’s and you will get the same kind of opposition nearly everywhere.

  2. Joe has asked for a new downtown – there is one at the junction of the Harbour Arterial and New Gower where there is ample space for taller buildings, for parking and for ease of traffic movement. But the speculators won’t go there because other speculators have pushed up land costs.

    Harvey makes a number of valid points about the current situation but consider this. Fortis bought many or most of those properties under a particular “contract” called the City Plan – they knew there were restrictions. Residents of Duckworth, Gower, Bond and Military also bought properties under this same “contract”. Fortis is asking to be favoured by their city politicians – to be given a windfall profit of 3-4 times the development capacity of their site. Residents are asked to accept a reduction of their property values (view is considered a marketable asset in downtown St. John’s) so that a property profiteer can benefit. By any standard, that is a breach of contract.

  3. Why must only tall buildings equal progress? Why not take a page from the development books of Sweden, Norway and Iceland – progressive countries that stay true to their heritage. There is already one Toronto. Why must St. John’s become a mediocre version of it? I’d rather it be a Stockholm or a Reykjavik.

  4. As a former resident I’m not sure how I feel on the issue, though I believe I share Dan’s opinion on the matter. I do know one thing, while the education system in place in NF is light years ahead of all other Atlantic provinces the same can not be said of the infrastructure. Throw some of that oil money towards Bishops College or Holy Heart, god knows they need it.

    Andrew, great article!

  5. Andrew you drive me nuts, people didn’t vote for you and most don’t agree with you.

  6. I agree with your concern Andrew, as would most people who have seen monolithic developments similar to the one proposed silence formerly lively neighbourhoods all over North America and the world.

    With these experiences in mind, people now recognize the importance of saving parts of the city that already work and constructing new buildings with a thought to the street life. With a facebook group already at 1600 members, clearly not everyone is looking to silence discussion, like some commentators on this post.

  7. I see the senior citizens and heritage advocates (can you say NIMBY) made it out to the event to help destroy St. John’s a bit more from preventing it from growth or having any sort of economic development whatsoever in the name of a dirty, ugly, embarrassing harbour and “heritage” buildings nobody in their right mind would even glance at.

    I wouldn’t expect any more than an article like this from the arts community and their blogs.

    I support the Fortis proposal 100% as does the majority of the city, minus a few members of the vocal minority that complain about anything and everything to fill up time in their sorry lives.