So Moved, St. John’s: 2 November 2020

St. John’s City Council never stops, so neither do we. Say hello to Jess Puddister, the Independent’s new municipalites correspondent.

It’s my very first collection of St. John’s City Council hot takes!

Well, kinda. I’ve been heavily nerding out on the #NLMuni scene since that time I built a tiny house and spent almost 3 years trying to get a municipal blessing to live in it. Which, in these parts, proved out of reach. Although the dream did not come to pass, it sparked in me a passion (or affliction, can’t tell yet) for municipal affairs and the way in which they are carried out.

I have admired Emily Deming’s Notes From the Rafters for years, and cannot quite believe that I’m picking up the baton from her to do this work. It’s one of those moments in your life when you step back and wonder how the hell you got here. But I am all too glad to be keeping an eye on city council. Here’s to resuscitating the mundane, and poking fun at spirited proceedings.

The Joys of Planning 

After anxiously mashing the refresh button on the city council meeting calendar page for a livestream link (there’s gotta be a better system here!), I learned that November 8th is World Town Planning Day. Mayor Breen acknowledged the good work of Ken O’Brien, Chief Municipal Planner, during his 24 year tenure—with a smirk. “Started when you were 5, did ya?” 

Celebrating “the accomplishments of planners and their contributions to their communities and environment” has been an international practice since 1949. Makes me wonder about the professional planners employed by the city and the province during the push for Confederation. (Or whether Joey allowed any.)

Jokes aside, urban planning is most often an overlooked, underappreciated profession that holds enormous importance in our collective striving for social equity, sustainable natural (and built) environments, and quality of life. A round of applause is well-deserved by the three saints in our Planning and Development department (Ken, plus Lindsay Lyghtle-Brushett and Ann-Marie Cashin), tasked with making this quirky city livable, safe, and healthy. Tall order indeed!

Cllr Burton drew connections between planning and many other fronts of action such as Covid-19 recovery, climate change resilience, balancing heritage with development, and “some of the biggest problems we face as a society.” The city has (or at least, can have) a big role to play in these areas, and I would argue that planning is the main conduit through which it can do so. 

It got me thinking about whether or not we are allocating appropriate resources in this direction. In 2017, we went from 5 full time staff persons to 3, and the 2020 Planning and Development budget ($636,540) is only ~60% of what it was in 2015. To compare, I looked at some municipal budgets for other Canadian cities of comparable size. Delta, BC, for example (population ~103,000) has a 2020 Planning and Development budget of $6,785,500—more than ten times what we’re dedicating! And they actually increased this budget line by more than half a million in light of Covid-19. I’d like to see our Council put its money where its mouth is, and throw the planners a bone.

Yes, yes, I know the budget is tight, but this is serious stuff that when properly funded can actually produce huge operational and maintenance savings. The St. John’s Urban Region Regional Plan circa 1976 is effectively useless now, and the completion of its successor, the Northeast Avalon Regional Plan (responsibility of the Province), has been promised since 2009. Don’t get me started. But YAY World Town Planning Day!

Coady Construction and Excavating has requested permission to develop 40 hectares of land off the TCH (1.9km East of the Foxtrap Access Road) for a mineral workings quarry. The decision on this was deferred last time so staff and council could chat with neighbouring communities, the Eastern Regional Service Board, and the Northeast Avalon Joint Council. No complaints or comments, so it’s recommended to approve the b’ys in their quest to break rocks and make gravel. Motion approved. Great to see a collaborative approach. 

Development Committee Report

  • 92 LeMarchant Road is looking to subdivide, to construct two single, detached dwellings. As reported in The Telegram, a home under renovation on this property was destroyed by fire in July, 2019. Building line to be set at 0m, and setback for the buildings themselves at 6m. All good.
  • A new fitness facility at 25 White Rose Drive, behind the Mr. Lube on Torbay Road, needs help with parking requirements. Cllr Burton makes reference to the current development regulations—as well as the new draft regulations (under Envision St. John’s)—which call for 22 (by most similar comparative use) and 8 parking spaces respectively. Incidentally: when is the provincial Department of Environment, Climate Change, and Municipal Affairs going to approve St. John’s’ updated Development Regulations? The placement of Municipal Affairs in that laundry list-y department title is telling. That draft was approved in principle by council in April of 2019, and has presumably been sitting on some under-resourced desk in the Confederation Building waiting for a rubber stamp ever since. It would be great to just refer to the one most relevant document, and leave 1994 car culture firmly in the past where it belongs. Anyway: they’re getting 22.
  • Accessory building at 467 Thorburn Road, in the Rural Zone. According to regulations, it’s neither permitted nor discretionary use. But council has discretionary power to allow a shed, related to an existing dwelling. So they did.

Winter is Coming

Cllr Froude made the case for subcontracting sidewalk snow clearing and ice control for “constrained… or specific geographic areas,” rather than the City fleet having to spend a lot of time in transit to address them. And fair enough! The Goulds is a fair distance from the city depot on Blackler Ave. The lowest bidder, Arc Ent Ltd.—they live in the area, as do their parents and grandparents, says Cllr Collins—is being awarded $70,723.85 for their services for a one year period. 

Cllr Burton says she’s noticed more and more applicants each year bidding to do this kind of work, which is encouraging and exciting. I think we can all agree. I dream of a decentralized, neighbourhood-based, user-informed active transport design and maintenance system, so that costs are minimized and everyone gets to go places safely in the winter. But baby steps are good. 

We’re going to pay Bell Mobility $1.44 million (max.) over a three year period to take over the Automated Vehicle Locator (AVL) system, so we can keep tabs on the realtime geographic locations of street and sidewalk (new addition!) snow plows/sanders/loaders at any given time. This helps staff to better manage the fleet, and lets Townies everywhere precisely schedule and show off their snow removal skills—without being humiliated by having to do it twice.

The Bike Plan

As for the latest on Kelly’s Brook Trail, we will be graced by the services and wisdom of a yet-to-be-decided consultant. They will guide us on how best to conduct public engagement and outreach during these Unprecedented Times, as well as design/engineering best practices. Councillor Lane says it’s an opportunity to have robust, formal dialogue about the city’s trail system shared-use upgrades (just the Kelly’s Brook portion for now folks), and acknowledges the many concerns that have been voiced thus far. He’s looking forward to it, and says the outputs will inform decisions going forward. 

Cllr Froude adds support, as does Deputy Mayor O’Leary, who also raises concern about seniors who live near or use the trails and are not “email-savvy.” She suggests on-the-ground walk-throughs, door-knocking, mailouts, and especially voice-to-text phone messages that can be converted to email. The city clerk assures us that this technology is already being availed of to accommodate residents who prefer the phone. Motion was unanimously carried to move forward with this tender.

Sign of the Times in Churchill Square

There was a lengthy discussion about the granting of a 60-day permit for a mobile advertising sign to Churchill Square Dental on city property in front of the square. The Churchill Square Business Association wrote in to say that it would be “nothing short of ‘visual pollution’” and wants none of it. Several councillors have sympathy for businesses trying to make a go of it during the pandemic, and the sign does fit within existing rules. There is a 12m (40 ft!)  spacing requirement between signs, so the concern of ugly signage cluttering is moot. 

The consensus is that through the Reimagine Churchill Square project, aesthetics (including signs) will be guided by a landscape architect, so for now, a temporary show of support with option to renew is fine. But deciding which businesses get to use a limited city resource (the sad strip of sod between Elizabeth Avenue and the northernmost parking spaces) is uncomfortable. 

Cllr Hickman doesn’t like these temporary signs; he wants the square to be a “a wonderful place to hang out and pass time.” I have fond memories of passing lots of happy hours milling around Monty’s Deli in high school, and I don’t remember any signs causing upturned noses. But maybe that’s not really what he’s referring to. I hear you, Sandy.

The Go-Round

On-brand fun news from Cllr Hanlon! There will be a road closure at Victoria and Bond on November 6th and 7th, from 4:30pm – 6pm, for an RCA Theatre Company dance performance titled ‘PERSUIT.’ How mysterious! If this Halloween’s zombie-grams were any indication of the value of public dance performances, I’m thinking you should get down and claim one of those 100 spaces for audience members, as per public health guidelines.

Cllr Stapleton spoke to a temporary noise by-law exemption and fittingly, she failed to turn on her microphone, so we couldn’t hear. (Thank goodness for agendas.) Chancellor Park Long Term Care Facility will be allowed to pour concrete through the night between November this year and April 2021. 

The Rotary Clubs of St. John’s were granted Freedom of the City in recognition of one hundred years of dedicated service to the community, with much praise and honour bestowed by the mayor and deputy mayor. Former mayor Shannie Duff was the last person to receive Freedom of the City in 2018, and according to O’Leary it was in part because she helped to adopt the city’s first Municipal Plan in 1984 (neatly bringing it back full circle to World Town Planning Day).

Breen’s memory for previous recipients is impressive: Paul Johnson, Former Mayor John Murphy, current Cllr Jamie Korab (“for some medal he won, one time”), and groups such as the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, the Church Lads Brigade, and the Victorian Order of Nurses. There should be a giant key to give them, perhaps cast from beheaded city parking metres. But seriously: if you have kids and bring them to Bannerman or Victoria Park, you can thank Rotarians for the playground equipment. Sunshine Park, too. They even started the local branch of the Canadian Cancer Society, helped build Memorial Stadium, led the multi-municipal effort to clean up the Waterford River, and give out the firefighter of the year award for the SJRFP.

There won’t be a Remembrance Day parade this year due to Covid-19 restrictions, but after talks with the Royal Canadian Legion, Mayor Breen let us know that everyone is encouraged to go out onto their front door steps at 11am on November 11th to observe two minutes of silence. Here’s hoping other municipalities will follow suit on this alternative to pay respects. Reminder to buy your poppy from Veteran Rod Deon, 99 years old, at the Merrymeeting Liquor Store this Saturday. 

The Provincial Government tabled legislation on Monday under the Tourist Establishments Act. Previously, the City has not been able to apply its tourism marketing levy to AirBnB’s and other such unlicensed places to stay, but it seems as though it will now be able to assess these properties and get in on the short-term rentals action. Breen is quite pleased. 

Clean St. John’s is also seeking nominations for the Golden Broom Award, deadline is this Friday, November 6th. Contact [email protected] if you know anyone deserving. (We just need clarification on whether pandemic-stress-culling and deep cleaning would count.)

Lastly, Cllr Collins is having the island on Ruby Line going into Southlands Boulevard checked out to make sure there’s nothing wrong with it, as several residents have complained. He also requests that we “put someone on a ladder” and fix the west-facing city clock. We can’t have the commuters thinking they’re not on time. Breen promises he’ll be out at that tomorrow. We truly do love to see it.

Photo by Graham Kennedy.

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