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Filling the Void: Churchill Square, Parking, & City Planning

in Featured/Journalism/Longread by

A while back I rolled into a room in St. John’s city hall packed with what seemed like half of Churchill Square. The crowd were practically chomping at the bit for the mic. 

They were there to talk about the ruins of the city’s saddest supermarket-graveyard. A new proposal called for a slightly wacky-looking building—with six storeys, many balconies, and some shops—to go on the cursed site. 

I foolishly thought we were going to talk about the building. 

Instead, all people wanted to talk about was cars. 

Three frequent speakers sat chatting near me in the back. They tossed up a bunch of questions: “what about construction noise?” “Where will the workers park?” “We’re gonna lose sunlight!” 

But mostly it was about cars: “the speed on Pine Bud is too high!” (Residents had asked for traffic calming, then later asked to have the speed bumps removed.) It can be hard to find a parking spot, people said. They haven’t been able to walk to a grocery store in 10 years, they said. 

Put up Churchill Square against most suburbs and the square seems like a miracle. You’d think this design, which lands you within walking distance of shops, downtown, and green space, would be—dare I say—a timeless model worth imitating over and over. But these days it’s more like an urban planner’s sweaty fever dream. 

It came at a time when, according to architect Robert Mellin, citizens of St. John’s could not understand why anyone would move out of downtown. With a mix of nice apartments featuring big windows and oak floors, as well as—if you could afford it—small houses, when the square was designed in the 1940s, it was part of an ambitious 800-acre project on land the city bought up with help from the colonial Commission of Government. St. John’s will probably never see the likes of something this grand again, as both city and province have since given over these big ideas about housing to private companies.

There’s never been anything remotely as successful since.

Where the Car is King

I mean, what for-profit developer sets aside a decent sized park, builds shops and retail space within walking distance, and lets a group of people form a co-op to build each other’s houses? That happened in Churchill Park. 

So why would the people who live there today pile on an apartment building in the heart of the area?

The design isn’t helping. It’s jagged and too tall (the plans show it annoyingly climbing a single metre above the square’s central clock tower), the materials are generic, and the whole thing just generally looks like it could be plopped down in Miami. 

In other words: the usual design problems we see here.

But at city hall, person after person stood to ask variations of just a single question: “WHERE WILL WE PARK?!?” 

It was exhausting. 

The owner of the Hair Factory rose to say he has 44 employees, and suggested that they therefore need 44 spaces. Especially at Christmas. The owner of Big Bite Pita suggested that all parking in the square be free. 

I’ve never had to circle for parking in the square in my life, and I’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s not free, but it’s free-flowing—which we forget is the goal of paid parking. Of course this project may make that more difficult, especially as the developer is asking to use city-owned spaces in the square. 

(I’ll get to that. But first I have to say: parking is at the root of a lot of local problems.

If you’re running the Anglican Cathedral downtown, how could you think about altering your National Historic Site such that it won’t [potentially] disturb a graveyard? You could think about it if the site is currently just sitting by an empty parking lot—which it is. How does the new Jag hotel get to put yards and yards of concrete walls at street level? Because parking. The condos proposed behind Garrison Hill? You got it. Parking everywhere! 

Cars do not scale. There only so many streets downtown and there is no amount of parking you could build downtown that will solve this. The only way forward is to stop subsidizing sprawl and build convenient public transportation that people want to use.)

Ahem.

In the 1940s, the original plan for the 800 acres on Elizabeth avenue called for three Churchill Squares: one around New Cove and Torbay roads, and another west of Stamp’s Lane by Avalon Mall. An extension of the streetcar was supposed to link them up. That never happened—so, obviously, the other two are unwalkable strip-malls.

Who Runs This City?

Taller buildings make more money, so that’s what KMK (the builder) and Loblaws get out of this. What will the city get? We never ask that question.

And KMK came with a list. They wanted to go higher than the site is approved for. They wanted new air rights so balcones can hang not just up to the sidewalk, but over the sidewalk. They’ve also pushed back against the city staff and built heritage experts panel, who requested that the building blend in with the mid-century design of the neighbourhood, and asked that the building be “stepped back” from the square side, instead of hanging over it. 

As of this writing, they’re getting it—all of it. Refusing to go back to the drawing board on any of it. And councillors are letting that pass.

This is hardly an atrocious building. But it was asking for a lot of new leeway from us, on a site that is essentially set up for a one storey grocery store. This is the point where the city councillors should say: you want to build six storeys? Congratulations. Thank you. Now what’s in it for everybody else? 

The obvious trade is a Density Bonus: letting builders go higher, in exchange for something of value, like a park, or some affordable housing. This is done all over the world, but we don’t talk to developers that way here—lest they get scared off by requests for small modifications and flee, never to return. 

So the only pushback at the meeting came because KMK told the city it would like to take 80 parking spots inside the square’s lot. People were, to put it mildly, blown away.

I guess I was too—for different reasons.

Hostile Architecture

The talk in the room showed that many people do not grasp some basic issues in urban design. For instance, if we build more dense buildings like this one, then our public transportation will have to improve to serve people who live there. More shops will pop up. That’s good. 

But the parking issue blew all the others aside. Even if the builders pay to grab the spots, 68 spaces (the current request) is a lot to need in the first place. 

There’s just something off-putting about debating a building whose look and function will change part of town, and then fixating on the parking. Eventually as the city gets more dense again, fewer people will use/want/need cars. We could put a park or a beer garden in the middle of Churchill Square and walk to it from our fabulous-yet-affordable condo, and live our best life. 

A square should give you something nicer to look at than 300 cars and a two storey snow pile. 

Surface parking. Parking! Could we dream up something more dynamic for the middle of Churchill Square? Could we, instead of cars, have: a market; a greenspace; a walkable zocalo; [cue French accordion] seating for cafes and pubs and meeting friends? 

But why aren’t people buying into that vision? A glaring trend that emerges around our city’s more controversial developments is that the developers tend to be the only ones who want their buildings around.

Developers should ask why that is the case. Is it knee-jerk NIMBYism? Sure, there’s a ton of that—and then time passes and people are cool with projects like the Memorial Stadium supermarket or the ALT hotel. Yet every month some new building gets proposed that utterly fails to get the people of this city onside.

The designs are a big reason why. You can’t put a building that looks like it could be a new GoodLife fitness on a national historic site. (I’m haunted by a vision of a spin class hovering in a glass box above the alleged ten thousand bodies buried by the Anglican Cathedral.) There’s a huge gap in architectural literacy on both sides. Way too many of us don’t know what makes our vernacular Newfoundland and Labrador buildings special, and that’s why we’re getting hoodwinked with cheap knockoffs. 

If you ever want to be amazed by what architects can accomplish, check out the Newfoundland and Labrador Architecture Association lecture series. Each fall they fly in architects from around the world so they can show off their work. Some of it is jaw-dropping.

Develop or Perish

It’s hard to know what to make of the developers in this city. They always seem to be shrugging while turning their pockets out. Meanwhile, in the suburbs, they’re clearing six figures per lot. 

KMK (who is also tangled up in the Baird Cottage debacle) is building 40 spaces underground, an amazing feat in a city of ghostly parking garages. So why can’t it bury 80, one per apartment? Surely the answer is money. KMK’s letters to the city are sprinkled with concerns about their bottom line. The apartments facing the telephone building will be hard to rent if they follow staff guidelines and step back the building, they said. Really? Six feet is going to kill this project?

Of course, it has essentially been approved by council now. One woman at the meeting asked whether the building will be LEED (i.e., “green”) certified, to which Justin Ladha, KMK’s CEO, gave a firm “no.” Why? 

I spoke with someone after who suggested that what people want is for Monty’s, the old corner store, to come back again. The crowd—largely made up of older professors and staff from Memorial—want it to be the 1990s again. And hell, why wouldn’t they? These boomers have a point: why can’t we have nice things? Why can’t we build green? Why can’t there be a small grocery store in walking distance?

The prevailing feeling from developers is that we can’t have things too nice. Not possible! Cast not an eye behind the curtain at the gorgeous new buildings by Woodford Sheppard and Todd Saunders. 

None of this is our city’s problem. The hole the supermarket left behind absolutely sucks. But why would neighbours want six storeys of apartments if all they get out of it is a new Shoppers Drug Mart.

Everything Old is New Again

The original square was started under the Commission of Government, and funded by the colonial (later provincial) state as well as the City of St. John’s. It wasn’t perfect. Joey Smallwood eventually put the kibosh on funding and the project dwindled; but the foresight of buying those 800 acres, which allowed for Memorial University, ‘Da Mall,and the Health Sciences Centre, is still paying off. The city built affordable housing projects which cleared the so-called central “slum,” and co-ops stepped in to help people use sweat equity to build their own homes. 

In other words: on this blank slate, people had a vision. 

So if a developer can’t make money without pushing back against neighbours and city staff and the built heritage experts panel, maybe their business model is not a real solution?

I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer in Bowring Park. Walking the winding trails by tucked-away falls, admiring the oak and linden and willow and flowering plants that seem everywhere around you—it is always surprising, like you’ve just uncovered a rare thing.

There aren’t many public spaces in North America to rival it. Central Park is a similar wonder, but Bowring, funded by one of our most successful old money families, is head and tails above Brooklyn’s sprawling Prospect Park, or Mount Royal in Montreal. These parks were designed by the best in their field in their respective countries—Frederick Law Olmsted in New York City’s case, and Frederick Todd (an Olmsted apprentice) in ours. 

There is no pure benefactor out there. A lot of us want a denser city, and some of these new projects are capable of helping that happen. But the scuffles over the new Jag hotel, the Miami Vice project in Churchill Square, the Cathedral addition, and the tacky ad-ridden park proposed by Canadian Tire in Mundy Pond make you earnestly wonder how low our expectations for public space have fallen—and how often we let private companies do what’s best for themselves.

Should you find yourself admiring the attention to detail in our very best buildings, or lingering in one of St. John’s stunning century-old parks, you may find yourself wondering what we can do to change that.

Photo by Luke Quinton.

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