So Moved, St. John’s: 7 September 2021

The 2017-2021 City Council rides off into the sunset of its final few weeks—but not before adopting the long-awaited Envision St. John’s Plan.

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A nip of Fall was in the air at the post-Labour Day meeting of St. John’s City Council. So was the palpable feeling of a Council in their dying days, as many loose ends got tied up and pet projects that some councillors have shepherded for years came to their final conclusion. Nominations have closed and election season—eclipsed as it is by a brief federal campaign which will conclude before municipal ballots are cast—is here. With just a handful of meetings left in its tenure, let’s break down how the 2017-2021 Council is using these last few weeks.

Build, Baby, Build

The meeting kicks off with development matters: Sharpe’s Store is requesting a small expansion to their kitchen. This is before Council—despite being within the municipal boundaries of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s—owing to its position in the Broad Cove River watershed. While, generally, watershed development is embargoed, this is a very minimal expansion—about 10%—with little anticipated impact on the environment. Various councillors affirm that any change in use would have to come back to Council for approval. Motion approved.

6 Winter Avenue is back after discussion at a prior meeting about whether to allow a house to be built despite being in the Rennie’s River floodplain. Plans for berms upstream (which will change the floodplain mapping), as well as the existence of houses already on the side of the street nearer the river, led Council to approve it when first considered. The setback and construction of the single detached dwelling is approved this week.

A Crown land grant in the Goulds outside the “Gould’s Ultimate Service Area”—which definitely sounds cooler than it is—is up next. Outside the GUSA, according to the decision note, “no development, whether serviced or unserviced, may be permitted except for infill development consistent with existing zoning.” That is not the case for this application. Denied.

Concerning commercial activity at 43 Welland Street, Cllr Korab brings up the old refrain: “this is fine but what else could happen here?!” Deputy City Manager of Planning and Engineering Jason Sinyard explains that since it is a change in ‘nonconforming use’—essentially, that the use is not allowed in the zone, but since it’s already there it can continue with minor variances and without changing the “degree of non-conformity”—an agreement can be required with the proponent to limit activity to only that described in the decision note. Any change would have to come back to Council. Motion approved.

Shoring up the legacy of Cllr Collins as he winds down nearly two decades in office, two tenders are approved to continue the Goulds trunk sewer expansion, which redirects wastewater from the Goulds Pump Station to the wastewater treatment facility at Riverhead. Several councillors offer congratulations to Collins for his dogged advocacy for the project.

The tender for the replacement of the Mews Centre is also awarded, another project which has been in the works for years. This process included multiple rounds of public engagement, a design and then re-design, a new site selection, and now, finally, the hiring of a contractor to complete the work. The timeline in the bid is for 22 months, with a possible six-month extension, so those of us who favour the Mews will be swimming in a new pool within a couple of years.

Pi Pizzeria is getting a deck. Four people wrote in to support their application, and nobody yelled “PARKING.” You love to see it.

Visions Becoming Reality

Other things you love to see: Council’s final vote to approve the Envision St. John’s Municipal Plan and Development Regulations.

Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of this moment: the Regs and Municipal Plan are the invisible underpinnings of what goes where in our city. Land use is so central to the functioning of municipalities and yet most people hardly think about it unless there’s a development happening near them. The Regs have an enormous impact on quality of life in our City and the ones we’ve been using are twenty seven years old. A new, modernized municipal plan and set of regs will start to address some of the reasons living in St. John’s is hard (largely relating to urban sprawl and low population density). Notably, many of the points in the “Revitalizing Policy” section of the City’s Affordable Housing Strategy are also achieved by approving the new Regs, proving that development matters touch many other facets of city life—including affordability. 

This process has taken over a decade, multiple rounds of public consultation, revisions, two years of sitting in limbo awaiting Provincial approval, and a phenomenal amount of work on the part of the City’s Planning department—which numbers a whopping three staff positions, far fewer than cities of similar size elsewhere in Canada. Cllr Burton ran in 2017 on modernizing the Municipal Plan and her satisfaction with delivering the new Plan at the end of her first term is clear. The Mayor offers Ken O’Brien, Chief Planner, an opportunity to speak, and he graciously gives credit to members of staff who worked on the plan in all the (many) years it was underway. Council votes unanimously to adopt the Regs and the Plan. From here, the final step is for the Province to gazette (ie publish) the document and then, in a matter of weeks, Envision St. John’s will come into full legal effect. Maybe we can (sometimes) have nice things after all.

Once I Get My New Heritage By-Laws, It’s Over For You HOs

In tandem with the Regs, a revised draft of the new Heritage By-Law is introduced by Cllr Burton. There has been much ado about this from a small-but-vocal group of individuals who either fail to understand which pieces of legislation cover what topics or are wilfully misrepresenting the facts. The latter is confusing as the arguments are framed as pro-heritage but take a seriously personal tone against a councillor with a voting record that consistently and demonstrably defends heritage. I’ll take “Cutting off your nose to spite your face” for $600, Alex.

The By-Law gives built heritage its own, much more enforceable set of rules, which are stronger and more robust than the current protections in the 1994 Development Regulations. Nevertheless, heritage areas are still subject to the zoning requirements set out in the Regs. The conjecture that enormous glass skyscrapers could spring up on every corner downtown is utterly false. The current height restrictions still apply, which for the most part are either 15 or 18 metres downtown, or 3 to 4 stories. Some decry these conditions not being set out in the by-law but that’s not what the by-law is for; we have the development regulations to serve that function. Furthermore, opponents of the by-law are shouting about a lack of consultation, but the decision note details all the ways this isn’t the case:

The assertion from a group of Heritage Objectors seems to be that this legislation is being “rammed through” before the election, and are insisting on delaying the adoption of this by-law. In light of this evidence, one could hardly say that’s warranted. It’s notable that this by-law and the regs are coming to Council in parallel, which assures continued protections for heritage as Envision gets adopted. If the by-law were delayed, as the HOs seem to be suggesting it should, that would leave heritage buildings without protection—the very thing HOs are worried adopting the by-law would do.

Nose, face, etc. Motion carries unanimously. Later in the meeting, Cllr Burton delivers a notice of motion that she will move the by-law for adoption at the next meeting, as is required by the rules of procedure for Council.

Gimme That Electric Feel

Last in the Committee of the Whole report is a proposal to cost-share the installation of electric vehicle charging stations. 10 of these would be for the City’s own vehicles, and 14 for public use in seven different locations city-wide. Noted is the statistic that the City’s “light-duty fleet [cars and small pickup trucks] specifically accounts for 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions of the corporation,” and, “gasoline (mostly associated with personal vehicles) is responsible for 56% of our community’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

To which I say: yikes! Time to get out of those cars. But if decades of unmitigated urban sprawl have made that hard—which hopefully will be remedied by the Envision regulations—you will at least be able to charge your electric version for a small fee at a public charging station. The City will kick in about $196,000, with the potential to recoup about $60,000 in sponsorships, to match the Feds’ grant of just under $118,000. Motion carries unanimously.

Relieve Us From Parking Relief

Later in the meeting the rezoning of 6 Lambe’s Lane is discussed, for three six-story buildings near Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. The application is for the rezoning application to be sent to a commissioners public hearing, with details such as parking relief and the specifics of the development to come at a later date.

From the Land Use Assessment Report.

Cllr Hickman spends a lot of time talking about the submission from MUNL itself, which is consistent with classic NIMBY resident responses, including the old p-word. The development is targeted at students, located a few metres from the educational institution, and on several major transit routes. The request for a reduced parking requirement makes sense and allows the developer to build more apartments to house people instead of providing spaces for cars to passively sit for most of the day.

In line with other NIMBY attitudes, MUNL’s submission largely seeks to dictate what can be done on land it does not own, and which attempts to solve a problem it acknowledges but has no plans to solve itself: “Aside from the numerous operational and logistical considerations outlined herein, Memorial also has concerns about the impact on Memorial owned residences.”

This during a time when residence shortages have been in the news. Hickman mentioned that yes, there are not enough residence spaces, but MUNL’s own predictions are for a 20% decline in enrollment when they double their tuition next year. This nonetheless feels very much like, “No, we can’t house our students, but we don’t want you to, either.” In this same vein, later in the debate Cllr Froude notes that MUNL itself provides only 80 parking spaces for its 1500 residence units. While only 4 spaces are proposed for the apartments, if they were to follow MUNL’s own ratio, the number of spaces would need to sit at 30.

The Deputy Mayor brings up the Pippy Park Commission. Why she does this is unclear.

Cllr Burton points out that there is a significant shortfall of supply of market rental apartments in St. John’s relative to the demand, especially from students. She notes as well that if the lot is rezoned but this specific development does not proceed, there will still be the possibility for apartments to be built in that space. Cllr Froude notes later on that the site could support a smaller number of units without parking relief.

Cllr Korab expresses tepid interest in the rezoning but is concerned about parking, because, “what happens when your folks or your guardians come in from around the bay with groceries?” The Mayor agrees that the proposal has value but mirrors these comments about parking. I hope this will not add yet another headstone to the graveyard of projects that offer solutions to pervasive problems that die on the altar of parking. Motion carries, with Cllr Hickman objecting.

City Council Will Return to Great Acclaim

In the go-round the Deputy Mayor mentions that the City’s non-profit housing units have 90 vacancies, 52 of which are “not rent-ready,” meaning that they need repairs prior to a tenant living there. Cllr Skinner refers to the housing stock as “overbuilt,” citing that the units are too large—mostly 3-and-4-bedrooms—for the demand, which is mostly for one-bedroom units. Skinner also asks for residents’ feedback concerning the downtown pedestrian mall and the Quidi Vidi pedestrian zone pilot. Cllr Stapleton and Cllr Korab both implore residents to watch out for children going back to school.

Mayor Breen, commenting on his own acclamation as well as those of Cllr Froude and DM O’Leary, notes a diminished level of participation in municipal politics in NL, with many seats being acclaimed and some councils even staring down insufficient numbers for quorum. Mayor Breen cites public discourse and social media as major reasons causing hesitancy in potential candidates. Nevertheless, he wishes all the candidates the best of luck in the upcoming election to determine who will enjoy the privilege of being yelled at on Twitter from 2021-2025.

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