So Moved, St. John’s: 25 January 2020

St. John’s City Council met for approximately 17 minutes this week—so we drilled down into some of the regulatory issues around heritage designation. Whee!

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Municipal Vermouth

Well friends, if the sidewalks of St. John’s were as dry and empty as the city politics front this week, we’d be living in a pedestrian’s fantasy land. Sadly, they—and we—are not. 

What can I say? There isn’t even any fresh content from Committee of The Whole I can rely on like I did last week. It’s all a bit grim. But then again, we are entering the dead of post-holiday winter, and there’s a provincial election afoot. So perhaps, for all our sakes, I should take a leaf from editor Drew Brown’s book and try to be as positive as I can. 

To get you started: Why has Council allowed Heritage Area Standards—the specific descriptions of aesthetic and structural features that need to be present and maintained on a heritage designated properties (in Heritage Areas)—to be excluded from the City’s new Development Regulations, while a new by-law addressing this issue is still in draft form and not released to the public? Seems like a glaring gap in heritage conservation, should the Province decide to release the new regs one of these days. Maybe they should put out that by-law in time for there to be meaningful public input, so we don’t have to live with ye olde Dev Regs any longer than we have to?

Committee Reports

Of our 187-page agenda, 143 pages were dedicated to the entirety of the City’s newly updated Occupational Health and Safety Manual. Cllr Skinner tells us there will be a mandatory awareness program for staff to participate in. All were in approval. 

I skimmed it as best I could, and, let’s just say I hope there will be videos. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff is super important, and quite serious. But the section describing procedures in response to theft / robbery and hostage situations did conjure up some entertaining scenes. I couldn’t help it. After every bullet point giving directions, for whatever reason, I was picturing Andy Wells with his black belt in Taekwon-Do doing the exact opposite. Here are a few choice lines to help you imagine your own version of ‘what not to do’, pulled directly from the manual:

  • Don’t be a hero!
  • Do not speak unless spoken to. Try to be friendly, if possible, but not phony. 
  • Try to get some rest. Find a comfortable position if you can. If the situation drags on for a long time, try to get some sleep.
  • Do not make suggestions to hostage taker(s). If your suggestion goes wrong, you will be blamed for having planned it that way.
  • Do not be argumentative with hostage taker(s) or other hostage(s). Try to portray a cooperative attitude. 

Maybe Andy can get into the OH&S acting biz. It would be a valuable contribution to the City. 

A $65,000 pump at the Windsor Lake Water Treatment Plant is falling down on the job and will be replaced. There’s a capital reserve fund for this sort of thing—since 2016, $350,000 is put aside annually to cover this sort of thing. Well under $100k per year has been getting spent, so we’ve got a tidy $1.39 million to draw from. Who knew! That’s comforting.

Out With The Carriages, In With The Renters

You might remember a Development Regulations amendment consideration that would allow heritage use, specifically residential use, in Carriage Houses, from the November 23, 2020 Council meeting. Since then, a small chorus of support has chimed in, backing this regulatory shift. Today, the amendment was adopted. 

(If you don’t want to nerd out with me, you’re henceforth excused. No offence taken. Skip to your digestif at the end.) 

There are only four historically designated Carriage Houses in the city: 

  • Sunnyside Coach House (70 Circular Road)
  • Angel House (164 Hamilton Avenue)
  • The Squires Barn and Carriage House (315-317 Mount Scio Road)
  • Carriage House (3 Park Place)

Number 3 Park Place spurred on this regulatory blessing. Cllr Burton explained that because the entire property lot has heritage designation—not just the main house—the owners will now be able to apply for discretionary (residential) use for their Carriage House, do it up, and find some tenants. 

The other three Carriage House stewards could now also come forward and see about converting theirs into accessory dwellings. Owners of Carriage Houses that do not have heritage designation may apply for it in order to potentially gain access to residential use (and rental income). Heritage Building property owners may not apply for a new accessory building for the purpose of using it in this way. 

All this has been achieved by the following three simple flicks of a pen: 

  1. Adding a definition for Carriage House (a “designated Heritage Building which is a detached subordinate Building originally designed primarily for the storage of carriages.”)
  2. Adjusting the definition for Accessory Building with this line: “does not include a Carriage House” 
  3. Adding the following under Special Developments: “7.36 Heritage Building (Carriage House), (a) One Dwelling Unit may be permitted.” 

This is very nifty and cool! But, in isolation, it’s also a load of literally classist (do not pardon the pun) horse shit. 

In the Decision/Direction note from staff, “Carriage Houses include original features that reflect upper-class outbuilding architecture for that period, including a mansard roof with formers, original window and door openings, large garage doors originally intended for a horse carriage, and location at the rear of the property.”  

Outbuildings on residential properties are not usually considered to be used as a Dwelling Unit. “Applications like this have always been rejected in the past,” said Cllr Burton. 

The reason it is now being considered in this instance is to allow the economic use of a heritage property, with the aim of ensuring that it remains standing rather than being torn down and lost at some time in the future. This is in line with why a heritage designation can enable other uses beyond what is typically allowed in a zone.

I can totally get behind this motivation for conservation. I’m sure you can, too. I’m veritably stoked for the owners at 3 Park Place and the lucky future tenants. 

But: if an old Carriage House can be renovated to an acceptable standard to house renters, as a stand-alone ‘apartment’ on the same property as a regular house, why can’t the same thing be done on non-historic properties? 

Whatever has been assumed to be inherently wrong with urban Accessory Dwelling Units has clearly now been proven to not exist—at least when affluent people stand to make an extra buck, or otherwise need financial motivation to avoid destroying historic structures.

One person who wrote in with their support is on my wavelength: 

“With regard to turning carriage houses or any accessory buildings for that matter into dwelling units, St. John’s is decades behind the times in approving these. These types of developments should have been approved long ago, in accord with CMHC [Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation]’s promotion of dwelling units in accessory buildings for seniors, students, and even adolescents who need special assistance. I confirm my support for this application.”

The Historic Trust’s stance is of interest. They’re generally in support of allowing adaptive reuse of Carriage Houses for Dwelling Units; however, they’re concerned that the slicing and dicing needed for the renovations may be “unsympathetic.” Reiterating an April, 2019 request, they are once again asking (couldn’t resist the Bernie reference) the City to release the draft Heritage By-Law for public review and consultation.  

Municipal Brandy

Victoria Park was “hummin’ all weekend” with people “sledding and sliding” according to Cllr Skinner, who is encouraging you to “get out and jump on a toboggan or a… whatever you call ‘em these days… used to be a piece of cardboard back in my day.” I can attest that the Valley by the Elk’s Club was an epic nucleus of pure joy on Sunday, and that sliding is not just for kids. If you disagree with me, you can go to Pippy Park and rent snowshoes or classic cross-country skis—Cllr Korab tells us there are reasonable family rates. He also noted that adaptive equipment for people with mobility impairments is available, too, and can be pre-booked. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy either, I encourage you to report sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian right-of-ways still blocked with snow to the city by dialing 311! Plenty of options to choose from for winter entertainment.

Main photo by Graham Kennedy.

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