So Moved, St. John’s: 23 August 2021

Chaos in the chamber as council decides what to do about the Duckworth Street pedestrian mall. Also, Shawn Skinner officially bows out.

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Another full agenda for this bi-weekly meeting, with an election (nay, two!) heavy in the air. The business of council nevertheless presses on, with the tension of some councillors who are seeking re-election palpable—and others deciding to step out of the arena for good.

Province Farms Out Goulds’ Rules to City (or, “Get in the EVA, Ian”)

An application for a Crown land lease in the Goulds was referred to council from the Province (as is the practice), with a Land Use Assessment Report to come back to staff for review regarding the development of agricultural land. Cllr Froude queries whether there are environmental concerns as the area is noted as being located in the Goulds Environmentally Valuable Area and wonders if the Environment and Sustainability Experts Panel should take a look at it and bring their feedback, along with the LUAR, back to council. Deputy Mayor O’Leary puts in, “Yes, no, I agree, I think that it’s just due diligence as long as it doesn’t take, like, an exorbitant amount of time, but, certainly, due to the environmental sustainability focus, I think it would make sense that it comes back.” 

Some members of council worry about the timeline for this and its potential impacts on the agricultural activities planned for the site. Chief planner Ken O’Brien lets council know that the Goulds EVA was introduced because the Goulds joined the capital city at a time when wetland mapping was underway; because the Goulds got there late in the game, staff drew a big circle in the middle of it and said, “This might be a wetland.” However, the area under consideration for the Crown land grant is not, in fact, a wetland. Cllr Froude is assuaged, withdraws his motion, and the grant is approved unanimously.

Duckworth Pedestrian Mall a Goose Egg

Council is asked to approve an e-poll about the fate of the Duckworth Street Pedestrian Mall. A meeting was conducted with some business owners in the area who had mixed feelings about the project. Cllr Hanlon asks if councillors can change their votes from the e-poll, saying that she voted without looking at the attachment. Cllr Skinner says he advocated for Duckworth being included in the mall because business owners asked for it, but admits that “I won’t call it a failure but […] It did not meet the expectations that we thought it would.” 

However, business owners in the Bates Hill area have told him they have spent a lot of money on their patios and don’t want the plug pulled early. Cllr Hanlon wonders whether she can make another motion; Mayor Breen says she can make the motion in the e-poll and vote against it; Cllr Hickman moves it instead. Despite this, Cllr Hickman appears confused about the content of the motion he just made—bear in mind that all these councillors have already voted on this motion—though Hanlon did admit she didn’t read it. 

Cllr Hanlon speaks again, saying that the “passion” from Duckworth St. business owners got them all on side with moving the mall to that street (in spite of the accidentally-broadcast comments to the contrary by Hanlon herself at the time) but that the project has not lived up to the high hopes attached to it. Now, Hanlon says, “There’s no reason to keep it closed, because there’s nobody goin’ to that section.”

Mayor Breen brings up the concern that opening only one part of the Duckworth mall would push traffic into a smaller area. Making this point, Mayor Breen calls the vote, but Cllr Hanlon interrupts to again state that she had heard resoundingly from business owners that they want the street opened between Cathedral Street and Prescott Street. (She is on the phone during the meeting so this is all happening from a disembodied voice). Cllr Skinner clarifies that, by saying “all the businesses” in the Cathedral section, they mean a total of four businesses. 

There is confusion about whether or not there actually are concerns with volume of traffic and large vehicles like transport trucks turning, should the Cathedral-Prescott section reopen but New Gower-Bates Hill section remain closed. Tanya Haywood, Deputy City Manager of Community Services, chimes in, saying: ‘If you asked [the] Transportation [department] what their preference would be, I think it would be that we not close Duckworth,” and that the closure had increased traffic in some areas of the downtown. 

Deputy City Manager of Planning and Engineering Jason Sinyard—after touching base with transportation staff—lets council know that the City’s transportation department would prefer if the entirety of Duckworth be reopened, with the parklet patios remaining but no pedestrian circulation on the street.

After abundant back-and-forth, Mayor Breen calls the question. There is silence. Cllr Collins asks, “What are we voting on?”

Motion to reject the reopening of Duckworth passes 5-4, with Cllrs Hanlon, Korab, and Burton, and DM O’Leary voting against.

In truth, there was a plausible scenario where the Duckworth pedestrian mall could have been a success. But like so many initiatives, a watered-down, piecemeal approach was adopted in hopes of placating different groups with opposing opinions. By refusing to pick a side and commit to an approach, the City failed to please anyone, including the businesses who lobbied to have the mall brought to Duckworth in the first place. This is the latest in a long line of failures in the same vein: the City’s first salvo into bike lanes, and 2020’s extra pedestrian and bike lanes due to Covid are two excellent examples that have everything in common with this situation: infrastructure that prioritizes humans over cars is nice, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience cars in the slightest. The issue with half-assed measures is that they feel as such and we can’t possibly be shocked when they don’t get the buy-in from the public that a wholehearted venture like the Water Street mall does. These initiatives were set up for failure from the start by an excessive sensitivity to the slightest pushback from people who can’t stand to be in their vehicle for an extra second, but paradoxically refuse to park at any distance from their destination.

Council Decides Health is Somewhat Important

In happier news, Council approves the Healthy City Strategy, a document that lays out the vision, “St. John’s is a progressive, inclusive, and connected city with active, healthy citizens, living in affordable, accessible, complete neighborhoods where citizens can move about freely, connect with the natural environment and feel a sense of belonging. “

The City will now establish a steering committee to oversee the implementation of the Strategy and conduct ongoing public engagement throughout the 10-year implementation period to keep the strategy in line with resident needs. It’s a very broad document that touches on a lot of topics and provides a really holistic view of health and wellbeing. It’s ambitious and requires a great deal of collaboration, but the intent and the content are good. Here’s hoping that the City’s partnership with Eastern Health helps nudge this strategy into reality.

Some Additional News About Housing and Backyards

L’Arche Avalon, a group working on building care homes for adults with intellectual disabilities, has its application for a personal care home in Pleasantville approved. Stella’s Circle has its application to construct 6 micro-units (apartments under ~450 square feet) given the go-ahead as well. Both involve amendments to the regs along with the applications and both are good news for housing in our city.

An application to expand the dwelling at 120 Barnes Road is approved, but the suggestion to decrease the rear yard clearance in the zone from 6 metres to 3 metres is referred to the Environment and Sustainability Experts Panel for fear that downtown residents taking advantage of those 3 new metres of developable space in their yards drastically reduce the amount of greenery downtown.

Skinner Sails Into the Sunset

In the go-round, Cllr Skinner announces that he will not be standing for re-election this fall. He says when he ran in the by-election in 2020, he wanted to see if he could manage the role on council as well as his full-time job and family responsibilities. The verdict: nope. He thanks voters of Ward 2, members of council, and staff. Cllr Collins thanks Skinner for his service, and points out that, “they says it’s a part-time job, but it’s not.”

I suppose this makes the upcoming election more interesting, with at least two ward councillors not reoffering and a vacant at-large seat with an enormous number of candidates vying for it. Meanwhile, this council will be back on weekly meetings, trying to squeeze in the last few pieces of policy it can before its composition changes—for worse? for better?—after Labour Day.

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