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It was a beautiful Monday in St. John’s and your faithful Indy municipal correspondent, Jess Puddister, was otherwise engaged. So I answered the call to pop up and tell you about the goings-on at City Hall for the week.

Trust me that members of my household will be grateful that I have an outlet for pontificating about heritage exterior treatments that isn’t family dinner.

Vinyl Siding: Not Actually Part of Our Heritage

Early on in the agenda—right after a change to the Sanitation Regulations By-Law, a nondescript set of dimensions in the agenda that I understand is the new size of cardboard bundles that you can put to the curb for recycling (60 x 60 x 30 CM, in case you were waiting with bated breath)—is the question of the exterior of the new building under construction at 331 Water St.

The initial council directive from 2019 had approved the building on condition that the exterior facade be made of concrete and brick, like other buildings in Heritage Area 1. After the fact, the developer—citing scarcity of materials—asked to replace the brick on one side with wood-look vinyl, which got the okay from Council. Now, again, the developer is asking to change from the approved material to what looks (to my eye) like vinyl siding in a solid colour. The developer met twice with the Built Heritage Experts Panel but neither party seemed willing to move from their positions. Chief municipal planner Ken O’Brien stated that the developer had conveyed that, “this was the only material he would be proposing.” 

Cllr Hickman pointed out that there are indeed bricks in production, despite the pandemic, and that approval had been given in good faith for a particular design. Council unanimously supported Cllr Burton’s motion to reject the use of the vinyl siding. Downtown will remain vinyl-free for another day. 

There have certainly been cases in the past that despite clear direction on heritage, environmental or other matters from Council, pressure from developers to walk back requirements has been successful—always with the threat that the project might not proceed if the developer is simply held to the standard to which they knew they would be. I think often the “we must give the wealthy leeway to do whatever lest they take their money elsewhere” narrative prevails over good policy. In this case, Council withstood that pressure. Good on ‘em.

Fireworks By-Law Banged Out

The new Fireworks By-Law was up for discussion, championed by Cllr Hickman. The new by-law would restrict the use of fireworks to the hours of 7:30 PM- 12:00 AM on Canada Day and New Years’ Eve. All other uses would require a special events permit. No word on how this will be enforced, given that the city has a small skeleton crew of by-law enforcement officers and significant response times; anyone who’s made a noise complaint surely knows the gaps there.

Cllr Froude and Cllr Burton voted against the new by-law on the grounds that the dates chosen might leave out any number of cultural communities who celebrate religious festivals with fireworks, and would subject those communities to paperwork and insurance requirements in order to do so. Cllr Skinner let everyone know he had asked his insurance company, and it would cost him a cool $65 a year to get the required insurance to set off a few Roman candles outside of the two dates included. Motion passed 7-2.

NIMBYs Handled Nimbly

Near the end of the agenda is 22 Shaw St. The applicant wants to rezone the lot—currently Residential Special (RA) to Residential High Density (R3)—in order to build two semi-detached homes. This was before council a few weeks ago and was referred to a public meeting, the content of which is summarized by staff in the decision note with a simple, frank line-by-line explanation as to why each point raised is inaccurate. 

Rarely have I seen so artful a shutdown of various NIMBY talking points as this. For example: 

“The development will negatively impact stormwater runoff on Shaw Street: The City’s Development and Engineering staff do not share this concern. There is a storm sewer main along the frontage of the property on Shaw Street.” Which is to say, actual engineers, with actual engineering degrees, are not concerned about this engineering issue. But thanks, random resident.

One cannot discuss this particular agenda item without noting that someone sent in a twenty-six page written submission. About someone building a duplex. In an area with many duplexes and an apartment building. Which leads me to muse that it is possible that there is an inverse proportional relationship between the length of written submissions and the validity of points contained therein.

Cllr Skinner noted that due diligence had certainly been done to hear the concerns of the residents. Cllr Burton wisely pointed out that “single family home” evokes a certain image of who might live there, but a duplex in many cases simply houses two families. Those who wrote in or attended the public meeting (as well as many others in our fair city) seem to think a “single family home” will be inhabited by Mom, Dad, and two angelic children, whereas a “duplex” will have a revolving door of degenerate sleeveens likely to break into their cars and sell drugs to their kids. 

This idea that even the most modest increase in density will turn your neighbourhood into a hellscape is perhaps both a cause and a result of decades of unbridled sprawl leading us to be sold detached homes as the only desirable housing type. Indeed, for a couple of decades in the mid-20th century, the CMHC would only approve mortgages to build detached homes in vacant land. But as it turns out, not all of us can afford to live in a SFH, and we certainly can’t collectively afford to have a city full of them, either. The low population density in St. John’s is one of the great hurdles of getting bang for buck in terms of services.

Cllr Korab acknowledged that all the concerns brought up by residents had been effectively addressed, but still voted against on the basis of those objections. Cllr Hickman and Mayor Breen did the same. 

This is one of the fundamental tensions of governance as I see it: should leaders simply speak through their ears in spite of compelling reasons why the objections raised are not warranted? Or should they apply an agreed-upon set of values paired with evidence to help respond to concerns that come up which might be more emotional than rational?

Both have value. I have landed on both sides of this in my time. I will freely admit that after doing the latter I felt uneasy, and I regret the votes I made in that spirit. I’ve concluded that if we want to make any sort of collective progress, acting for the greater good is the correct and courageous choice. In this case, Council—which has a unanimously-approved affordable housing strategy, declared a climate emergency, and been given very sensible explanations why residents’ concerns don’t hold water—still voted 30% against an extremely minor increase in density that rezoned a lot to match the zone touching it on two sides. Even when it’s clear that increasing density is a key lever that the City holds when it comes to lowering emissions and housing costs. 

I’d go so far as to wager that the folks who objected to this most innocuous of applications would themselves like their services to be better, their taxes to be lower, and not to die from climate change. The challenge for councillors is to make the connection between individual applications and the big picture—that density has a collective positive impact on affordability, servicing, and lower GHG emissions—and at the same time refute the big, classist lie that was sold to everyone for decades about “neighbourhood character” and property values being intrinsically tied to single family homes and only single family homes.

Municipal Brandy

In the final go-round, Cllr Froude explained that a group of kids had asked for a street hockey net in Larch Park, which he had helped make happen. Some neighbours got upset, but as he rightly pointed out, there are still two tennis courts in that park, and several others nearby.

Let the children play, people. Lord.

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Hope Jamieson is a municipal correspondent with The Independent, covering city council meetings in the weekly column, So Moved, St. John's. She served as Ward 2 Councillor from 2017 to 2020. Hope works in the affordable housing sector, and is dedicated to poverty reduction, social equity, and inclusion. She lives in St. John's with her partner and their three children.