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Municipal Cognac

It’s been quite an intense time since The Indy’s new website launched on May Day! We’ve rolled coverage from the May 3rd and May 10th Council meetings into one piece here, on all the springtime happenings in ol’ Sin Jawns. Goutweed and community spirit alike are coming alive again in full force. 

Between the Envision St. John’s Municipal Plan and Development Regulations finally making their way back to Council for adoption following provincial release—and the Greene Report dropping—I must admit I have been drowning in documents. 

A sound analysis of this stuff must be intersectional. Much of what the Province needs to do regarding the social determinants of health, poverty reduction, and population growth/retention (which all link back to fiscal stability) must take place in the City. Much of what the City needs to do to become sustainable, accessible, and equitable will connect directly to addressing these big picture issues, but is controlled by (very old and outdated) provincial legislation. 

The topic of jurisdiction is an important one, and badly needs attention. Are the new Municipal Plan and Development Regulations the tools we need them to be? Where and how are they undermined by Provincial governing legislation? What should the City be advocating for as we all respond to ‘The Big Reset’? I look forward to exploring the answers to these questions in the very near future. 

City Clean-Ups: A Model for Civic Empowerment

May 3rd was the start of this spring’s Pick it Up for YYT Clean Up Campaign in the City of St. John’s. You can register your cleanup on the website to receive free garbage bags, arrange for pick-up, and enter for prizes. Over 8000 volunteers are expected to take part this year, with over 40 tons of garbage being collected. 

This is a fab example of how metrics can really provide a wake-up call for things we might take for granted. Spring clean-ups have been happening every year in St. John’s for as long as I can remember, but I never had any concept of the scale of impact before. I’m going to do a little back of the napkin scribbling here to project these numbers further. 

8000 people collecting 40 tons of garbage works out to 4.5 kg (10 lb) per person. Let’s say it takes a volunteer 1 hour to collect their 4.5 kg during a cleanup. That’s 8000 hours of labour that have been contributed to cleaning up our communities. Using a $15 wage (as a bare minimum), that works out to the equivalent of $120,000. That’s really significant! An hour can go a long way, when we pull together. 

Clean-ups create a sense of community, and a sense of collective ownership. I think this kind of resident collaboration could be applied to many more aspects of City life, and it would help foster civic empowerment for changes we’d like to see. Data collection and metrics are a key part of this. 

For example, Vélo Canada Bikes is looking for volunteers to participate in a national bike count (aka Pedal Poll). St. John’s is one of 14 participating cities. All you need is a smart phone, and a willingness to make observations from a set location for 2 hours.

There is very little data on cycling use in St. John’s at present. The more we can collect, the better we’ll be able to benchmark against other cities—and set informed and measurable goals on policy and infrastructure for active transportation.

Eric Street Affordable Home Ownership Project: Zoning Change Passes

The City-owned Open Space parcel of land at 28 Eric Street has been rezoned to Residential High Density (R3) to accommodate three townhouses. Cllr Burton (and apprentice, baby Edith) was back in the chamber to explain what has happened to date, and make the motion. 

The rezoning that took place here only applies to the land where the proposed Townhouses would be developed—about ⅔ of the lot. The community garden portion will remain in the Open Space (OS) Zone. 

The public engagement process of this proposal has been mired in controversy. Neighbours feel the order of operations were stacked wrongly, in that consultation with residents on the street came much too late. As such, many of them report that their concerns were not meaningfully factored into the decision making process. This was acknowledged in the discussion at the Council table. 

The Independent’s Rhea Rollman reported on this topic in December 2020. Of note, former Cllr Hope Jamieson (now with the Community Housing Transformation Centre) was interviewed and shared a perspective on community engagement that prioritizes relationship building. 

[Jamieson has] seen examples from other jurisdictions where project managers have substantive ‘kitchen table meetings’ with neighbours at an early stage and incorporate their input into the initial development proposal. She’s seen cases where developers invite community members to early visioning sessions where they ask neighbours what they would like to see in projects, and find ways to incorporate ideas that benefit the existing community.

Rhea Rollmann, “An Empty Lot on Eric Street Holds the Key to the City” (9 December 2020)

It’s impossible to say how or if the proposal would be moving forward, and what it would look like, had the City guided Habitat for Humanity in taking this approach. Comments like this one, from a neighbourhood resident and community gardener, give a glimpse of the road to compromise: “To reiterate, I am not in favour of this proposal as presented, but think a revised proposal rezoning a smaller portion of the lot would be acceptable to me.”

From staff’s Decision/Direction Note: “The City recognizes a need to better understand these informal green spaces and how residents use them. Further, as the City moves forward in considering other properties as part of the Affordable Housing Strategy, neighbourhood consultation should be carried out before involving any third-party housing organizations. 

Cllr Skinner—the ward councillor—voted against the motion, citing the issues with policy and process. He said, “I’m not able to support the staff recommendation because I feel that it’s a precedent that we’re establishing, where we’re going in and taking something away as opposed to offering up something that was vacant and unused… I don’t think we should be taking it from the area residents for any purpose.” 

This loaded language really polarizes the situation, in a way that ignores a lot of the picture. It also casts the concept of ownership in a lop-sided view. City-owned Open Space belongs to us all. 

But, it remains true that the residents nearby have a relationship with, and an emotional attachment to, the land. When we think about providing homes for three families in need, and preserving a portion of green space used by families and neighbours that contributes to their sense of community and connection with nature, how do we weigh these things against one another? There’s no metric for that. 

Deputy Mayor O’Leary—Housing Portfolio Lead—voted against the motion citing the issues with mysterious standing water on the property. She said, “Though the developer would be asked to address this in the build, and not the City, there is absolutely no guarantee that these unresolved water issues can be addressed without possibly rerouting or negatively impacting neighbouring properties—we don’t know that.”

Cllr Collins, who supported the motion, believes, “if that’s put in proper, and backfilled proper, I think that’ll take care of half the water if not more.” Not suggesting we should impulsively trust Cllr Collins’ guess at just how effective a good excavation and granular fill job will be (although I get the sense he has a lot of experience with these things), but it stands to reason that small-scale geotechnical issues are usually able to be addressed with standard techniques by the developer. This is City staff’s recommendation.

Cllrs Froude, Hickman, Hanlon, and Mayor Breen added their support to Cllrs Burton and Collins, citing the great need for affordable housing in our community (especially blended into existing neighbourhoods), the four municipal parks being a short walk from the street, and the advantageous location. 

Very sadly, as reported by The Telegram, the decision has left a group of Eric Street neighbours deciding to sell their homes and move

Forthright, respectful conversation and a genuine willingness to listen goes a very long way when trying to change something. Especially when there are power dynamics present. An ‘us-versus-them’ feeling automatically sets people up to be defensive, which we all know is a killer of collaboration. 

However, thinking with a City-wide lens, this approach is not a NIMBY antidote. Nor is it an antidote for power-wielders who lack a willingness to negotiate. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good a job you do of showing up for the hard work of transparent, empathetic communication. Sometimes it is impossible to please everyone and Council must do its best to respond to the needs of the community.

It is the City’s job to do everything in its power to adapt outreach and engagement processes such that they are done in good faith and do not create a real or perceived hierarchy of perspectives, with neighbours near the bottom. Only then can all the parts of the picture possibly come into focus for everyone. It seems they’ve learned this lesson here. The proof will lie in amendments that are brought forward, which I hope to see on an agenda as soon as possible. 

Construction Hoarding in Churchill Square

KMK Capital says they require a lease of the portion of the parking lot, and have provided a phased hoarding plan.This whole thing is very curious. It seems to mean storage space for construction materials during an ongoing build? 

Maybe we need more of this happening in Churchill Square. Someone needs to submit a phased hoarding plan for anything but cars. Perhaps this is the mechanism through which we can realize a pedestrian paradise with cute market stalls, beer gardens, food truck pods, and giant human-scale board games. You can have these ideas for free—go and apply for a lease like KMK.

New Pump Track Inflates Joy

The rubber is hitting the road on a beautiful partnership between the City, Canary Cycles, and the Avalon Mountain Bike Association (AMBA) over on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake next to the dog park. Everyone is stoked.

From staff’s decision note: “A pump track is a continuous loop of berms and “rollers” (smooth dirt or paved mounds) that is ridden by “pumping” your body up and down over the features to generate momentum, with peddling or pushing. Pump tracks can be used by cyclists of all ages and skill levels, as well as, scooters, skateboards, and wheelchairs when paved.” 

The City is kicking in $60,000, Canary Cycles (through AMBA) is donating $100,000, and any additional cash needed would be fundraised. The Regatta Committee is in support. Sandy Hickman will be down there and is “pumped.” Mayor Breen promises cameras will be ready for that.

Municipal Brandy Tasting Flight

  • May 1 to May 7 was National Youth Week, and as such, there were some very impressive youths getting acknowledged for all that they do in their communities. Margaret Peters, junior recipient, and Jorja Hinks, senior recipient, of the 2021 Youth of The Year Award, visited Council chambers to receive their glass leaf-shaped trophies and much applause. 
  • The Senior of the Year Award, on the other hand, has been pushed to late September. Nominate here!
  • Four mobile vending units (two food trucks, and two non-food trucks) have gotten the green light to form pods at the Pedestrian Mall. 
  • 502 Topsail Road (the brown building on the right in the image below), which used to be a salon, is getting permission to reinvent itself as a Lounge. 
  • Robin Hood Bay dump is getting a nice new coat of rocks.  We’re paying Clarke’s Trucking and Excavating Ltd. half a million dollars to provide us with said rocks. That should be quite the expansive garbage panini press.
  • Lastly, without getting into the meat of the new City Plan and Development regulations, it’s worth sharing Chief Municipal Planner Ken O’Brien’s musical tribute to the painstakingly drawn-out, and thoughtful process of these documents coming to be. His voice is so soothing; he should narrate audio books. Here you go:

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Jess Puddister is The Independent's Municipal Correspondent, writing a weekly column titled, So Moved, St. John's. She's been working with Newfoundland and Labrador municipalities since 2017 mainly on climate change response strategy, eco-asset management planning, and sustainable development advocacy.