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

The City held a public hearing on the contentious Parish Lane Development at 68 Queen’s Road. The Independent sat in to witness the theatrics.
The main concept components of the development, including three phases. (Source: Land Use Assessment Report).

This is the first of a two-part series. Read Part Two here.

In July, The Independent sat in on the public hearings regarding Parish Land Developments’ condo plans for the plot of land at 68 Queen’s Road. At both in-person and virtual meetings, there were accusations of skullduggery from attendees and at times tempers boiled over.

One of the issues that was brought up again and again by members of the working church group was the potential for the Ecclesiastical District—where 68 Queen’s Road is located—to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Other issues included  misinformation from Councillors and inappropriate behaviour that favoured the developer.

Back at the July 12 council meeting, our council appointed Chantelle MacDonald Newhook, QC, as an independent commissioner to conduct both the public hearing and a virtual session for St. John’s Municipal Plan Amendment Number 1, 2022 and St. John’s Development Regulations Amendment Number 1, 2022.

Her role wasn’t to make any decision but to listen to concerns regarding 68 Queen’s Road, note them, and within 30 days of the final hearing, submit a report on her findings to Council and the provincial government.

A Walk Down Parish Lane Development

This proposed development has been tangly and hotly contested from the start. In December of 2019, Parish Lane Development—led by CEO Rick Pardy—bought the property that contained the old Anglican Parish Hall at 66-68 and the process has dragged on since then.

He intends to build a 40-unit condo development on the now leveled site.

In 2019, a group of residents started a petition against the development, with many people concerned about the loss of green space near the back of what was once the Anglican Parish Hall.

In November of 2019 Pardy held a public meeting that led to some further conversations with Happy City St. John’s and Heritage NL—then led by Jerry Dick—which  went through a three-part public engagement process. There was an online survey,  a focus group to narrow it down, and then the engagement of  a third party to do a design charrette (an intensive period where designs are planned). From there, changes to the initial condo design were made.

The larger of the two proposed buildings was rotated 90 degrees and more greenspace was preserved. The second, smaller building, which started as a 14-unit apartment building, was redesigned into three townhouses.

It’s important to remember that while the proposed development is making its way through City Hall, Council hasn’t signed off on the project.

One of the reasons this development is so contentious lies in its location. It’s in the City’s Heritage Area 1 as well as the Ecclesiastical District National Historic Site. Its neighbour is St. Andrew’s (a.k.a The Kirk) and across the street is Gower Street United, with the Basilica just around the corner.

The Anglican Church didn’t have a representative at the public hearings, even though the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is in the district. It also isn’t a member of the working group that three of the churches in the Ecclesiastical District have formed to raise objections on this development.

This may be because the Anglican Church is the one that sold this particular  parcel of land in the first place.

That was a catch-up to the issues swirling around 68 Queen’s Road; and now let’s get to the public hearings

Day One

The first public hearing kicked off at 7 pm in the Foran/Greene Room at City Hall on July 20. It wasn’t particularly heavily attended, only bringing in about 15 people, with most people sitting on the left hand side of the room. These are where the speakers would come from and there were a lot of grey hairs.

Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary was present, but because everyone was wearing masks, it was hard to confirm  if any other councillors were in attendance. 

City planner Ann-Marie Cashin started the evening off with a presentation, which provided  a history of the development and its shape.

When the application was first made in 2019 she said the property contained the former Anglican Parish Hall, a parking lot at its rear, and a tree area. The City removed the heritage designation from the hall and granted permission to demolish it, she said. The subject property is currently zoned Open Space at the rear of the lot and Residential Downtown at the front, she explained.

At present, Council is considering rezoning the Open Space to accommodate an apartment building. During the public consultation process Cashin said concerns were raised that it was rezoned to one of the CIty’s existing zones, and something else could be built there. So a site specific amendment would ensure the building’s size and the use proposed by the applicant is the only building that could happen on that property.

As it’s also designated public open space in the St. John’s Urban and regional plan, a regional plan amendment is also required for council to consider for the urban development designation.

Initially, Pardy proposed a building with a height of 18 metres. Since then the roof’s form has been changed and the building height on the Harvey Road side has been lowered to 16.5 metres, said Cashin. So this figure will be incorporated into the St. John’s Development Regulation appendix.

“The proposed development was reviewed by the Built Heritage Experts Panel during the Land Use Assessment Report stage,” said Cashin. “The panel mandated that materials in keeping with institutional buildings at the site and windows that have cruciform shapes.”

These elements have been incorporated into the design, she added.

Chief Municipal Planner Ken O’Brien was also present at the public hearing, though he stayed silent.

Then, Chantelle MacDonald Newhook, as commissioner, opened the floor for people to make comments. A number of people walked up to the microphone to say their piece.

Anne Walsh, Chair of the Basilica Heritage Foundation Inc., was the first to speak and had a folder ready with her. She spoke at length on the cultural and historical importance of heritage buildings as well as the tourism potential that helps cities and churches.

“Therefore what happens at this critical junction can impede not only our historical value but our tourism value as well. This now is more important than ever,” said Walsh.

She said they’re in favour of a medium density—as opposed to high density—zoning for this lot.

She said the Ecclesiastical District—which is a national historic site—is a gem in the country and worth protection and enhancement. Moreover, the Basilica Heritage Foundation believes it’s worthy of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“We feel the proposed development is at odds with that initiative. We’re not opposed to development. We’re not opposed to development in the district or in heritage area 1,” said Walsh.

But they want a sympathetic development. She said they wouldn’t want to see any additional height variance added to the proposal, “in fact we’d like a reduction applied.”

She said they’d like to see a design that was “sympathetic, as we said, in size, scale, character in order that the unique character of the district is not damaged but enhanced” so that World Heritage status would still be possible.

The concern repeated throughout the public hearings is that the Parish Lane Development will torpedo an application to UNESCO.

Projected impact of the Parish Lane Residences on the view from The Rooms. (Source: Land Use Assessment Report).

As an aside, there was a lot of talk about capitalizing on these towering churches as tourism dollar generators. While it’s true that these buildings are a part of a visitor’s itinerary—and getting UNESCO designation could be an added draw—haven’t the last two years taught people that betting on tourism isn’t a sure win?

The tourism sector was devastated and hasn’t yet recovered from the pandemic. As a daily reporter I spoke with many tourism operators throughout the province who were worried in the summer of 2020 they wouldn’t be able to stay in business.

Gearing more of our economy to tourists isn’t necessarily a safe investment and can be quite precarious, with or without a global pandemic.

The Rooms With a View

Chair of The Rooms Inc. Margaret Allan was next up to the mic, and raised the issue of how the building–which would dwarf the other structures  in the area–would impact on the view from The Rooms.

Once the view from The Rooms is gone, even by a small amount, it can’t be replaced, she argued before the commissioner, who was dutifully typing this into her laptop.

Allan said despite the changes made by the developer (alluding to the building being rotated) and efforts to show its impact on the view (which she called sincere), in reality it’s not clear what the building’s impact on The Rooms view will be.

“What is certain though, absolutely certain is that there will be significant and negative impacts. Once the structure is built there will be no adjustment possible.”

Allan raised that in other jurisdictions a developer would be required to erect a full scale in situ model to show the impact it could have in the area.

She laid out the situation as she saw it: the developer is eager to see the project progress and see a return on his investment, the City also wants to develop it, get the tax revenue, and appear  as “open for business.” The province, she believes, is reluctant to meddle with a different level of government.

“But governments, municipal and provincial, are elected to do what’s best for the people and to make tough decisions. The view from The Rooms, arguably one of the best views anywhere, is a public resource, housed in a public, provincial institution and deserves public protection,” argued Allan.

The board urged the City and provincial government to reject these proposed amendments that would allow the Parish Lane Developments to advance, she said and ultimately, Allan asked that the proposal be rejected.

The next person to speak would end up dominating the evening and speaking several times.

John FitzGerald, executive director of the Basilica Heritage Foundation and member of the working group, opened up his statement by recalling something Mayor Danny Breen had said, that the City was open to hearing new information. 

“So I have new information,” he said. “Our churches are working with the secretary general of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which is the United Nations group known as ICOMOS.”

He added Mario Santana-Quintero is a Carleton engineering professor. FitzGerald said they’re engaging him and a process that involved lasers to create a 3D model of the churches, which will help manage heritage buildings and help in their conservation. He said Quintero has partnered with the churches in the district and Memorial engineer professor Stephen Bruneau.

“Our group plans to conduct a heritage recording project in the 61 acres of the Ecclesiastical District in St. John’s over several years,” said FitzGerald.

Quintero is also the senior scientific advisor to the UNESCO World Heritage committee, so his work in the district “will essentially be the fast track or potential fast track for World Heritage status for this district and a first class economic development opportunity for the City and for the province.”

This isn’t nearly as clear cut as FitzGerald makes it sound, however–as The Independent‘s later interview with Santana-Quintero shows.

FitzGerald followed up saying he had to be careful, but it was his impression that the City hadn’t done anything to help or encourage them in their World Heritage bid.

In fact, he said the City has “actively planned, consulted and worked with the Parish Lane developer to give him every advantage and in fact, has refused to meet with us.” FitzGerald claimed they asked to meet with the mayor and collectively present their concerns but it never happened.

On this point FitzGerald would be questioned and a few moments later he’d have to walk it back. (I’ll note that there was public engagement in the early design stage and a charret was brought in and the design was changed, though the end result was not to everyone’s liking.)

FitzGerald also said a representative from Parks Canada reached out to the City to let them know the property, designed as it is, isn’t compatible with World Heritage status, in part because of its height. He called it a high rise in the context of the City and that it threatened the potential future bid for World Heritage status.

He added he didn’t think the City’s planning department had informed the council enough on these issues and added an unnamed councillor (it was Cllr Ian Froude, as a later speaker noted that evening) had said that the development wouldn’t impact an application.

He also claimed planning officials, in a 2021 briefing note, said the City should join with Parks Canada and the churches to create a management plan for the Ecclesiastical District before approving rezoning for the Parish Lane Development. He said Deputy City Manager Planning, Engineering and Regulatory Services Jason Sinyard signed off on it.

He believes a heritage impact assessment should have been required of the developer by the city.

While he argued this area has some of the most architecturally significant buildings in the world, he said “City Hall has spent three years tripping over itself to give every advantage to a developer to help him build a modern 10 story condo tower in the middle of a National Historic site. What possible reasons could there be for not doing it the right way? I think City Hall has abandoned its responsibility. And this is despairing.”

FitzGerald told the commissioner she’d find the working group more than willing to work with the City, province, and developer anytime to help redesign the building the developer proposes. They want to ensure it meets his needs and their needs and more importantly  that it doesn’t stand in the way of the district becoming a World Heritage site.

Main concept components of the development, fully landscaped view from Harvey Road. (Source: Land Use Assessment Report).

Residents Speak Out

There were two residents of the neighbourhood who spoke about the concerns about the condo building.

Jeff Foran said for years he and his neighbours have been the stewards of a green space on the Parish Hall property. While speaking he was at times visibly emotional on the site’s importance to him. He also called it a calming, naturalized space. He pointed out the impact of the space on  those who frequent the Gathering Place. It’s a calming space in their lives and those of the other residents in the area.

In 2019 the Council declared they would recognize the climate change emergency “and then almost immediately said ‘yes by all means cut down the trees,’” said Foran.

Foran called on the elected officials to listen to constituents “and not just one man.”

Another resident who spoke was Amy Evans, who identified herself as a renter who cared deeply about her community.

Evans said most of the condos downtown are vacant most of the year, and cited the ongoing housing crisis in our city, an issue she added wasn’t unique to St. John’s. So when people talk of building up density, who is using it has to be considered as well.

Ultimately, Evans said she’s afraid she’s going to lose her community and her home.

The general sentiment was that the council wasn’t listening to its constituents, and they were favouring one wealthy man.

Heather MacLellan, representing St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, raised the issue of Parks Canada and the World Heritage designation. She wanted to address “misinformation” regarding what impact the proposed building will have on the UNESCO application. She argued that information that it won’t have an impact was circulating but said this, in fact, would quash its application.

She also spoke at length about the issue of vibrations from future construction that could damage these structures, including its priceless artwork. She pointed to the Kirk’s 68 stained glass windows by Scottish artist Balantine. The Basilica’s marble statues and arch could also be impacted. She said the City has been advised of this issue.

Later in the meeting MacLellan spoke up again—this time explaining she was also a retired superintendent with Parks Canada in eastern Newfoundland for the National Parks and Historic Sites, among many of other titles. She said she wanted to build on FitzGerald’s comments about incorrect information about the Parks Canada position on the development.

Here, she identified that Cllr Froude had said publicly—citing VOCM—that while a UNESCO designation is a “laudable goal,” information they had from Parks Canada suggested the development didn’t impact a future designation.

MacLellan wanted to exorcize this lingering notion, saying it would in fact jeopardize a designation.

“I don’t know for the life of me why the City is not lapping this up to have a World Heritage site in the middle of their heritage area in the centre of the downtown,” said MacLellan.

She pointed out the churches have tourists “streaming” through everyday who now see this construction fence in the middle. “And we’re going to be riddled with construction noise and disruption for years to come if this gets settled. That being said, there has been no consideration whatsoever for the real things that have happened and we want this to change.”

Heating Up and Digging Into the Past

While Parish Lane Development CEO Rick Pardy wasn’t present—I overhead he might be out salmon fishing—architect Philip Pratt, who designed the condo, was there. He sat off to the side. Curiously, the people against the development tended to sit together on the left hand side of the room.

It didn’t seem like he was there to talk but MacLellan addressed Pratt by name, asking him about the various sites that were proposed for The Rooms—which Pratt also designed.

Pratt said it was actually Government House grounds, with plans that the building be underground. He said there was a design where the Colonial Building was going to be the public face of the archive. Government House would be the public face of the museum, and a new, smaller modern structure would be built for  everything else, underground.

“But that was not appreciated by the heritage community,” Pratt noted.

Then, he said they looked at the waterfront but A. Harvey & Company wouldn’t sell the land. From there  they went to the site they ended up with. There was no question the views of the Narrows and the harbour were the most important elements of the building; it  has views in several directions. There is also no question that the proposed condo has an impact on the view from The Rooms.

“And I’m going to say something: this property was put for sale by the Anglican Church,” Pratt added. “It wasn’t a forced sale. They put it for sale so they could raise some money. There was a big sign on Queen’s Road for two years… ‘For sale: development opportunity.’”

He said that, ironically, he agrees with a lot of the things being said. But when that property was put for sale, “did everyone expect the developer to do all of these noble things, that I agree with? Is that the responsibility of the developer or should it have been the responsibility of the church? The lauded public institution that owned the property on the basis of the sweat and tears of the people in Newfoundland. They sold it, right.” 

There were also no requirements in the sale other than the developer would have to do a rezoning or whatever needed, he said.

“I will absolutely not get into a discussion about the design and all the issues that you’re talking about and they’re legitimate ones,” he explained. “But when the owner approached us to look at this building, I was very skeptical because, for the obvious reason. And I will also say that Rick Pardy approached us with the point of view that he was aware of the issues that you’re talking about–and that when we did the design,and this was one of a number of iterations– including the impact on the neighbours.”

Pratt pointed out the building is as far away from the residences as possible and closer to the curb. All these issues were preemptively taken into account, rhetorically asking: ‘did we satisfy everyone’s objections? Obviously not.”

But he said when we sat down with Pardy and Paul Chafe, he was thinking: “What would this damn building have looked like if someone else was involved with it? So I think that the churches, the institutions, that owned this land need to be proactive with these issues before people–including me–get put through grief, embarrassing grief, trying to deal with them.”

He added they’re trying to do something responsible .

They did look at the impact it would have on The Rooms and its view, but unfortunately they didn’t have access “to this great, noble network of technology that could have three dimensioned all of downtown St. John’s. We did our best. I think it’s a half-decent project… especially in terms of what it could have been if we hadn’t been involved with it.”

MacLellan spoke up to say maybe they should have been more active, maybe The Rooms could have bought the land through a fundraising effort perhaps.

At which Pratt interjected, pointing out the sign was out there for two years and he was sure someone from The Rooms saw it; “No one did anything until the developer made an offer on the land. I mean, give us a break! Nothing happened. It was there!”

There were a few interjections and the commissioner had to step in, saying to let one person at a time speak, to which Pratt said he wasn’t saying anything else “period.”

MacLellan spoke up once more, saying we are where we are, and added that Pardy did a great thing by bringing stakeholders together and they did have a design charette with a Toronto architectural firm.

But okay, here’s the tea: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say Pardy is being duplicitous with City Hall and not taking your calls and then admitting he did bring you in for consultation and congratulating him on it.

I also heard some grumbling on the other side of the room—someone floated the idea that the Anglican Church didn’t have the right to sell the land, but someone else corrected them.

Continue reading Part Two of this series here.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.

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