ST. JOHN’S – The public forum held last Monday night in the Foran room of St. John’s City Hall was a true Newfoundland time. The evening started off with legendary singer/songwriter Ron Hynes playing his song the St. John’s Waltz. The crowd, some 300 strong, joined in to sing, and Hynes ended the song exclaiming “This is our town! This is our home.”
Guest speaker Elena Patarini, an architect and urban planner from Italy, remarked that she was happy to be at a public meeting where people were singing together instead of yelling and throwing things at each other. A new resident to St. John’s, Patarini brought her experience in architecture, historical preservation, and urban planning to her discussion of smart growth and good urban planning. She focused on the idea of urban identity and its importance in making a city a vibrant, attractive destination to live in or visit.
The next panelist, Strat Canning, was the author of the Downtown St. John’s Strategy for Economic Development and Heritage Preservation back in 2001. He spoke to the various recommendations of his report, and the economic impact of maintaining a heritage character for downtown. Canning was critical of the City’s implementation of the recommendations of his plan, and in response to a question stated that “we just have a system at City Hall which doesn’t seem to want to do proper planning.” Canning was referring to City Hall’s many exceptions which have been made in the past to their own municipal plan, and building regulations (such as the infamous Atlantic Place).
Small business-owner Dave Hopley spoke from his own experience as a small retailer on the importance of community. He said that corporations try to create brands which develop an emotional bond with their customers, and that “they are spending millions and millions of dollars to create what we already have.”
Mary Walsh, legendary actress, comedienne, and social advocate was the next up to the podium. Moderator Keith Storey jokingly introduced her as a “quiet retiree” residing in St. John’s. Walsh brought her quick witted tone to her speech, stating that as a city we need to “decide whether these rules, these heritage rules, need to be protected, or, whether, like the mayor says, they can just be decided against, willy nilly. If you have enough cash, you can come in.” She went on to say that “cash is a mutable thing. It comes and goes, but we stay, we go on.”
After the panel spoke, there was time for the public to ask questions, or make statements (which was more often the case). Although the Public Forum was intended to address the broader issue of development in St. John’s, everyone knew that the discussion would turn to the Fortis proposal for a 15-story tower on Water Street. Those who spoke after the panel were critical of the proposal, and expressed concern over the effect of such a development on small businesses in the area and the lack of creativity in its design (it is essentially a big glass box).
Business-owner Peg Norman, who currently leases space on the proposed site of the new tower, said that Fortis could make a “kick-ass” development on the proposed site. Norman, and several others expressed a wish for Fortis to open a dialogue with the public over the issue of development.
Regardless the outcome of the Fortis Proposal, this public forum, which was solely organized by the public, clearly shows that there are issues around development which citizens want to see addressed. My hope is that the city can recognize this, and be the one to plan the next public forum on the future of development in St. John’s. The sooner they do this, the better.
photos by Dave Lane