Hot Property Development Summer, The Parish Lane Public Hearings: Day 2

On the second day, the City took the public hearing on the Parish Lane Development online. The Independent zoomed in to watch the theatrics continue.
Parish Lane Property Development model. (Source: Land Use Assessment Report).

This is the second of a two-part series. Read Part One here.

 A second, virtual public hearing on the Parish Lane development was held on the day after the first one. It was Cllr Maggie Burton suggestion that there should be two public hearings. At the June 28 council meeting she pointed out that many people might not be able to attend an in-person event in the middle of summer due to people going on vacation. Virtually, more people could attend from wherever.

The hearing started out just as it had the previous night with City Planner Ann-Marie Cashin giving the same presentation on the history of the development. Then, the comments started.

Basilica Heritage Foundation Inc. chair Anne Walsh was once again the first to the mic. She wanted to address comments made during the meeting the night before. While she didn’t say Phillip Pratt’s name, anyone who had attended, knew exactly to whom she was alluding.

“A speaker implied that everyone should have been aware when the property owner offered the land for sale, that a large high density development would have to go there in that area,” she summarized. “And it was therefore inevitable it would be rezoned. And further what I heard was the suggestion that it was the property owner’s fault for selling the land and that other neighbours should have bought the property if they wanted to keep it from being rezoned—making it an area that’s a culturally and historically significant landscape in Canada.”

Apart from the “unreasonableness” of these ideas, Walsh said the reality is the purchaser understood what the rezoning was and what it meant. It was in a green open space, located in a national historic site, and surrounded by heritage buildings in the Heritage Area 1 and the Ecclesiastical District.

Walsh said they had to assume the developer couldn’t have been given any reassurance the property would be rezoned or a development would be allowed in such a context.

She continued: “The purchaser carries all the risk. The risks that were taken in hopes of profit. But it was and is the purchaser’s risk. Just as it was our risk as the Basilica Heritage Foundation’s when we bought the Basilica.”

A Brief Segue

This is a great time to remind readers that the Roman Catholic properties to which Walsh alluded—owned now through the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s—were up for sale to raise funds for the victims of the Christian Brothers at the former Mount Cashel orphanage. The abuse claims date all the way back to the 1940s and to the 1960s. Moreover, the Church tried every avenue to dodge its responsibilities, even attempting to bring its case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The St. John’s Basilica, along with St. Bonaventure’s College, and the St. Bon’s Forum were recently purchased by three Catholic groups. Photo By: Joanna Poe (Wikipedia).

A group made up of three Catholic organizations—the Basilica Heritage Foundation, St. Bonaventure’s College, and the St. Bon’s Forum—came together to combine the necessary funds to make a successful bid, which is estimated to be more than $3 million.

The sale was approved by a judge. As it stands, the Basilica, St. Bonaventure’s College private school, and the St. Bon’s forum skating rink now all belong to this group.

The purchase was mentioned several times with pride by various speakers during this public hearing, which appears unseemly given the circumstances behind the reason for the sale in the first place.

To Walsh’s comment about the risks involved in purchasing the Basilica, St. Bonaventure’s, and the Forum, it is worth noting that there really wasn’t the same amount of risk involved. 

That particular group rallied to keep the buildings as they were, and the sale only had to be approved by a judge. There weren’t attempts to rezone or bring in new uses to the properties. It was a straightforward purchase of buildings with no changes, mainly to avoid the risk of losing access to the church, the school, and its rink.

Back to our Regularly Scheduled Write-up

Robert Pitt of Gower Street United said the church’s official board has taken a formal motion that they oppose the development as proposed. It had decided it couldn’t support this development, for several reasons: it wasn’t an appropriate size, scale, or design, and there were concerns on the impact it would have on traffic.

He later outlined what he’d like to see built instead: “We believe in a structure that respects its neighbours on Queen’s Road and surrounding properties on Garrison Hill. Respects the importance and integrity of the national historic site and respects our city’s century old landscape in terms of height, scale, and design, which would be a structure that doesn’t ask for exemptions and variances to excuse itself from good standards.”

World Heritage Status-Seeking   

FitzGerald also spoke at length, once again returning to a subject he’s obviously passionate about: World Heritage status for the Ecclesiastical District.

He wanted to continue on what he spoke about during the previous evening on the potential impact on the Ecclesiastical District and its ability to become a World Heritage district.

The Ecclesiastical District includes many historically significant buildings. (Source: Heritage NL).

On March 2, 2022, he said he understood that Christophe Rivet, ICOMOS Canada’s head, wrote to Premier Andrew Furey about the implication of this building. He emphasized the responsibility the province has to preserving and respecting the heritage character of existing heritage buildings and how the new proposed development could affect this.

FitzGerald was informed of the contents of the letter, and Rivet mentioned that Canada signed on to the World Heritage Convention—so they are bound to Article 5, which requires implementation of effective and active legal, scientific, administrative, and financial measures to protect heritage.

FitzGerald once again reiterated that this “high rise”—or at least by the City’s standards —would be a threat to the World Heritage application.

He advised the commissioner to try and get a copy of this letter.

He explained that there was no intent to disrespect the city’s planning department, the department of cultural tourism and recreation, or other departments like municipal affairs, “but they do not have, in my opinion, sufficient experience particularly in world heritage in this province to be able to speak at length about world heritage. And I’m not a world heritage expert either, my doctorate is in Newfoundland and Labrador history.”

“But I know that I’ve read enough and I’ve been a former member of the religious heritage committee at the International Council of Monuments and Sites for Canada, ICOMOS Canada—when I did my doctorate in Ottawa I was on that board for five years. So I’ve been exposed to a fair bit of discussion about this.” And he said he knew they don’t have that expertise here, but it does exist in places like Ottawa.

He also brought up Carleton University engineering professor Mario Santana-Quintero once again, and said he believed this expertise had not been “tapped” for this proposed case.

Moreover, he said he and his colleagues remain concerned because they believe they have a resource that belongs to city and provincial residents and want to see it protected. In addition, they have brought national and international attention to the subject, and experts have been writing to the government.

“What’s troubling is we had more or less a cold reception from the City of St. John’s and relative disinterest from the province. This is surprising. It’s very surprising, given public statements of the province about the importance of world heritage to our economic development.”

FitzGerald also argued that city staff didn’t have the expertise regarding heritage, something 

City Planner Ken O’Brien would soon contest.

Living in a Construction Zone

Rebecca MacDonald and her family recently moved into a home on Garrison Hill, she said, buying in March even though they’d heard about the development. She thinks the land is underutilized. One of her points is that downtown is filled with newly constructed buildings that are eyesores.

She also echoed some of the sentiments that had been swirling around this development, that it’s already a “fait accompli.”

She’s concerned too about the impact construction will have on her home and the stained glass windows in the churches that could be damaged or destroyed by the blasting. Ken O’Brien said the developer would be on the hook for damages, but she leveled back that after the fact won’t cut it, as they would still have to live with the damage while waiting for repairs. Nevermind that some things won’t even be able to be repaired.

Stonewalling and Gaslighting

Ken O’Brien spoke next, saying the Ecclesiastical District working group, made up of volunteers, did meet with Mayor Breen and members of council, so it was not accurate for FitzGerald to say the city refused to meet with the working group.

He also took issue with FitzGerald’s suggestion that city planning staff were not competent in these areas and presented inaccurate information to council, which he said would be a failure of duty and a possible ethical breach in professional standards.

Then, FitzGerald was unmuted to respond. He said, the chair of the board of Gower Street United, Pat Griffin, chair of the board of the Kirk, David Baird, and himself wrote to the Mayor to ask for a meeting. One issue they wanted to talk about was the approach for World Heritage status, but he wouldn’t agree to meet as a group.

Breen wanted “to play the ancient game from the time of the Roman Empire called ‘Divide et Impera,’ which is divide and conquer,” said FitzGerald. So under those conditions, the group decided not to meet with Breen.

FitzGerald also lamented that this was particularly painful to see. “We sure as heck were getting the mayor and real estate agents on NTV news holding press conferences, pointing at all the buildings and Cathedral Square saying ‘this is going to be sold and that’s going to be sold, and we have opportunities to develop.’” 

“So they were more than happy at City Hall and amongst the politicians and the real estate agents and the news media to contribute to the controversy and stoke the mayor’s talking points about redevelopment and the wonderful tax benefits to the city,” he continued. In the end,  they were not particularly interested in heritage, and they were not able to get a meeting with the City.

As an aside, the mayor’s comments hardly indicate a disinterest in preservation. Those Catholic church properties may be heritage buildings, but at the same time, it is not the responsibility of City Hall–funded by St. John’s tax payers–to help the church pay what it owes to sexual abuse victims.

So while FitzGerald said he can appreciate O’Brien’s point of view, in his experience it was slightly different. “I’d be willing to venture that Dr. Anne Walsh and Mr. Robert Pitt would also agree we didn’t have a lot of success here,” he said.” We weren’t listened to and we don’t feel we were respected, particularly by the city or the planning department in our requests for meetings.” Or from information they saw coming from the City.

Conflicts of Interest?

FitzGerald also said there is a bias and preference from Council—both elected officials and bureaucrats—towards the developer rather than the existing heritage aspect.

Meanwhile, Kong Sun Lim, a volunteer and graduate student at Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus-Senftenberg, had a question about future conflicts of interest in regards to the condo. He asked if we’d be able to expect that all councillors who are also realtors will excuse themselves from voting this round, as it pertains to a condo development. He also asked if they could guarantee they wouldn’t be involved in future sales with these condo units, should they be built.

A point well taken, but the commissioner said that wasn’t in the scope of the public hearing.

However, there is a policy for instances like this at City Hall. If you look back at past council meetings, this is the case: Cllr Ron Ellsworth was the realtor for John Steele’s new building, which was also a former Anglican-owned administrative building that was sold and rezoned. Cllr Ellsworth repeatedly and consistently recused himself from voting.

Traffic or No Traffic, No Disrespect

Resident Rebecca MacDonald then had another question about all the additional traffic that’s going to be coming into the area where this condo is built, as the area already has some issues around accidents and near misses.

Cashin confirmed that the city traffic staff reviewed this issue, but saw no problems.

This point came up again a few minutes later. There was a lot of back-and-forth, and things got very heated.

FitzGerald once again had a question for Cashin, who said he wasn’t sure if he’d heard the answer correctly to the question about traffic. It had also been raised earlier by Robert Pitt from the Gower Street United Church. He wanted to know the sequence of events. Pitt had said Gower Street had objected to traffic, but this had already gone to the traffic committee beforehand? 

Cashin said the process at the City when they receive an application is that Council sets the terms of reference for the Land Use Assessment report. The applicant puts it together, then the report is submitted to the City for a review, where it can be referred to various staff. When staff are satisfied it meets the regulations and City policies and no further study is required, “then we go to a public meeting.”

FitzGerald said that was the Land Use Assessment Report, but he was interested in the traffic question vis-a-vis Gower Street. At what point did traffic people look at the implication for the intersection? “Because the reality is: there were complaints, there were concerns, unless I’m hearing this wrong, and they went to a traffic committee before the complaints or concerns.”

Cashin corrected him that it wasn’t a committee but a review. The staff were the ones who designed that intersection. They are aware of what’s there and the concerns raised. And they evaluated the proposal and didn’t see any issues about the application or existing intersection.

FitzGerald asked if the staff had heard the concerns of the residents of Gower Street beforehand their review.

Cashin replied that there are two things happening: there’s construction at the intersection and around the City at the same time as this development application. So they likely received concerns before and after the application was received. But in their street review of this particular application, the public consultation would have happened afterwards.

Then—done questioning Cashin—FitzGerald addressed “madam commissioner” directly. “My observation is this is a very good example of how the City does work. And the staff and the professional staff make the decisions they implement and then they hold a public hearing to tell everyone what they’ve decided. It’s not about consulting. It’s more by design. It’s more about informing the people what has been decided. And if you want to fight that, good luck to you.”

The Commissioner* then said “I would ask folks to keep our comments respectful, because I know there’s a bit of frustration after some time dealing with this issue.” While she didn’t name anyone, it was still clear who she was directing this towards.

She continued ,“But I think that there’s a lot of hardworking folks, both within the city and within other government organizations as well. I know that all of you volunteers and residents are too but I would ask that we please keep our comments respectful of the work that has been done.”

She added that she was happy to get their feedback about concerns around discrepancies and process, how things could be improved, or where factual information is needed. 

Since the city staff had already looked into the issue of traffic, and it wasn’t deemed a cause for concern, George Street United’s earlier objection seems beside the point, while FitzGerald’s accusatory comments are off the mark, and uncalled for. 

MacDonald pointed out the circular logic of having the people who design the intersections get to be the same people who say traffic in the area will be fine, which she said seemed like a questionable process.

FitzGerald did pop up again, saying he wanted to apologize “in case I’ve left a misimpression [sic] here. And I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the planning staff… I have in front of me the minutes of the Built Heritage Experts Panel for the 13th of May, 2020.”

He opened the document and read out a sentence from it: “The Panel then discussed the Envision Development [requirements] noting that the processing of this application should set an example for a new process as, in future, consultation will be required prior to the submission of a LUAR. The Panel agreed this will be a progressive step going forward.”

(Note: You can find it here and note he dropped the word “new” from the New Envision Development and called it a requirement, not a regulation, as it is in the minutes.)

He said that statement, if he’s reading it correctly, assumes no consultation is required at that time in 2020.

“And that illustrates my point about the sequence of consultation before a decision. And that’s my concern; that there have been decisions made in this process that were taken prior to consultation.”

Wrapping Up

MacDonald spoke up next, wanting to know what happens now with the public hearing.

Newhook said the next step is that she will take all the information she’s collected and been given and submit a report to the City and the provincial government. That report will then be reviewed by the Council, and the government minister will also have to make a decision.

Ken O’Brien said after the commissioner’s report is received it will be reviewed by city staff and by provincial staff. Then it will go to Council, who will have the final vote on it. Around the same time the Minister of Municipal Affairs will have to make a decision on whether to approve an amendment to the St. John’s regional plan.

Cllrs Carl Ridgeley and Sandy Hickman were both on the line. They popped on at different points to reiterate the same thing: thanking people for taking time to speak, and that they had a lot to consider.

At the time of this posting, the commissioner’s report is in the hands of the Council and the provincial government. It will be made public at some point, however it’s unclear when exactly that will happen.

Coda: 3D Castles in the Air

The Independent reached out to Carleton professor Mario Santana-Quintero to ask him about the 3D mapping of the Ecclesiastical District, which is so integral to FitzGerald’s goal of getting World Heritage status.

While he does carry a number of titles and sits on a number of boards, Santana-Quintero said this particular work is in relation to what he does as a professor, which extends beyond teaching and into community engagement. 

Early on in the pandemic, he said FitzGerald and MacLellan reached out to him to consult with him on his expertise. They have since invited him to St. John’s and he’s keen to visit.

However, they are still trying to obtain funding to start the work to create that 3D map, which will help create a digital twin of the Ecclesiastical District. Not only that, when the work starts, it could take years to complete. This type of work is often done in phases. So the first phase would be to scan the site, then collect the data to create a digital record, finally a model can be created. Of course, a project such as this can also go faster, depending on how many people work on the project.

Still, as of now it is awaiting funding. Santana-Quintero said he’s hopeful it will come through.

He also had a message to developers: “You can understand my surprise when some developers in Canada do not understand this very simple fact that there is space to build things. There is space to rehabilitate existing structures. There’s space to keep structures as they are. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a matter of having a responsible view, not in the short term, of getting some good money but also contributing to society, to the environment, to the heritage.”

Santana-Quintero said unfortunately, Canada has a weak legal framework for the protection of heritage.

He declined to comment on whether the 3D model would be a ”fast track” to World Heritage status, noting he’s seen applications take 10 to 15 years to put together. While this model will help, it doesn’t act as a guarantee. He also agrees with FitzGerald and MacLellan, this site is significant.

For a Canadian site to get on the World Heritage list, “it’s a very long and painful process,” he said. It starts with getting the Ecclesiastical District on the tentative list of Canada. That decision is made by a board of experts, so he can’t comment on that process.

“But I can certainly tell you the Ecclesiastical District seems to have a unique and outstanding value. It broadly has really interesting criteria that could be relevant to the world heritage convention.”

Digital documentation is part of the nomination process. “There are many components,” he said, having been an evaluator for World Heritage. As part of an application you need to have a management plan for the site, comparative analysis, a conservation plan, and a legal framework to protect the site, he explained.

Whether it can be nominated, he said, is not part of his task.

“It’s always interesting, we as heritage professionals look at the future, you know. We […]want sites to survive us. I think that says a lot about them and it says a little about people who only look at the short term winnings of making some developments.”

While this is valid work, it doesn’t exactly align with the statements given by FitzGerald during the public hearings regarding 68 Queen’s Road. The 3D mapping of the Ecclesiastical District project isn’t as close to taking place as FitzGerald made it seem, and it’s far from a given that World Heritage status is within reach.

*An earlier version misattributed this quote to Ann-Marie Cashin. It was corrected on September 20, 2022 to reflect that it was in fact Commissioner Chantelle MacDonald Newhook who said these words.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.

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