St. John’s: City of Hotels

I’m all for development. And that means an end to these foolish downtown hotels.

So the downtown was once more in the news last month, as the newly elected St. John’s city council debated and approved ‘The Light House Project’: a “boutique hotel” (a term which used to mean an intimate, non-chain hotel, until large corporate chain hotels started using it and rendered it meaningless) on the east end of Duckworth Street. The proposed development violated various building size and height restrictions for the downtown, and nearby residents and businesses complained it would disrupt the landscape, activity and potential of the area. They also complained about the questionable manner in which the city allowed the developer to purchase the land – without a public tendering process – and about the fact none of them can ever seem to get the city to move on their own special requests, while wealthy developers seem to get whatever they want. Unsurprisingly, city council voted to side with the developer.

It’s a tired old debate which never seems to go away: what to do about the many conflicting demands and expectations of the downtown? Or, put another way: once we’ve made laws about how we want a part of our city to look, do we make concessions and exceptions to developers who offer jobs and money if we do their bidding?

To judge by the commentaries on media sites (most of which seem to come from people who do not live downtown), yes we should. The downtown residents invariably come out against these changes, but they are a minority who are urged to take a hit for the vague ‘good of the economy’.

A different angle on an old debate

Well, whatever your opinion of this debate, I can’t find myself rightly falling on either side of it. I’m all about developing the city, but the fact is that the types of developments that are being approved for the downtown are in no way, shape or form good for our long-term economic growth.

What they are good for, is lining the pockets of the landowners and developers and contractors who will directly benefit from these projects. And, yes, they will create some short-term jobs. But bolster the economy? That’s another matter entirely.

The fact is, another boring old average-looking hotel is going to do very little to boost the provincial economy. In fact, one could even argue that placing it downtown is counterproductive. It could have just as easily been placed somewhere in the languishing centre city. Is a tourist, entrepreneur or other short-term resident not going to come to St. John’s, just because they can’t get a harbour-front view? That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard! They’ll happily take a place in the centre city, or the east or west end, and then rent a car or take a bus to the downtown (thereby contributing even MORE to the local economy). This obsessive compulsion with hotel-building along the downtown makes zero sense. Hotels are not needed to attract people to the downtown: people are already spending their time downtown. They take up space that could best be filled up with much more interesting things – galleries, independent shops, restaurants, architecturally creative public spaces and parks for tourists and residents to spend time in. Tourists come to SEE the downtown, not to insist on staying in a boring average-looking hotel there. The more hotels, the less opportunity to enhance the downtown as the tourist attraction and economic generator which it is (and could be so much more of). In fact, I would submit that every hotel dumped in the downtown in fact detracts from the downtown’s economic potential. Given that it’s not going to be a deal-breaker for a tourist whether they’re two minutes or 20 minutes from the harbour, put the hotels elsewhere!

Doing so has additional benefits. Hotels placed strategically around the city would help to revitalize other neighbourhoods. The city outside of the downtown is full of depressed (and depressing) vast dead spaces, abandoned or under-utilized properties, weeds and gullies. Start developing it! A hotel placed in some languishing residential neighbourhood would encourage and attract interesting shops, restaurants, and pubs.

A fetishistic vortex

The obsessive fetish everybody – especially developers – has with the downtown needs to stop. Yes, it’s great. It’s arguably the best thing about the city. And for precisely that reason, nobody seems able to build a vision of an attractive city that goes beyond the downtown. The rest of the city, quite honestly, is in many ways a dump. That is what we need to be working to change. We need a plan to create vibrant and interesting neighbourhoods full of colour, diversity, business, action, bustle, sushi, and innovation. Neighbourhoods filled with a sense of community that people can be proud of. Look at Toronto – they’ve got their Little Italy, their Junction, their Parkdale (each of them chock full of their own interesting and unique businesses and attractions). We’ve got Airport Heights and Da Mall.

No wonder developers don’t want to undertake projects outside the downtown. It’s so much easier and simpler to just focus on where the returns are highest – downtown. But for precisely that reason, city council needs to make them turn their attention elsewhere. Carrots and sticks, people. Carrots and sticks. We’re soon going to have a completely over-developed downtown while the rest of the city remains entirely underdeveloped. In fact, the drive to put hotels downtown almost suggests that we’re embarrassed about the rest of the city (given the lack of attention city council gives it, that’s not surprising!). What does it say that we seem compelled to create a self-contained little world downtown, where tourists and rich investors can spend all their time and pretend that the rest of St. John’s – where the majority of us live – doesn’t even exist?

Carrots and sticks and fusion sushi

Hey, you know that great Indian restaurant out in the East End? Or, you know, that community theatre out in the West End where they put off those amazing plays last year? Or you know that really fun craft market they have up in Shea Heights every weekend?

No? It’s because lack of development around the city means lack of any character for the city outside of downtown! Oh, our neighbourhoods have identity – many of them wonderful identities – and history; rich histories. But they don’t have the things that make them neighbourhoods: unique local shops, eateries, community spaces. The things that attract residents, business, and tourists.

The downtown is a black hole, sucking up all the energy and economic potential of the city. It’s time for the city to leave it alone. Downtown will thrive and survive delightfully on its own. It needs no more hotels or offices. It’s time to give some of that action to the rest of the city.

And to do it responsibly. A city needs to have things that make its neighbourhoods worth living in. That means not just hotels and offices, but public works. Community centres. Unique shops and bars and restaurants and entertainment facilities. What about establishing economic incentives for businesses – especially locally-based ones – to set up outside the downtown core? How about this: every developer or company that gets a contract to develop a large property downtown, ALSO has to take financial responsibility for a park or library somewhere else in the city? As a wise person once said, with great power [and profit] comes great responsibility, my friends.

Conflicted responsibilities

The fact is, every council member who supported the application for a hotel downtown, if they were representing districts other than downtown, was acting against the interests of their own constituents. They should have been fighting each other for that hotel, not scrambling to let it sink its roots wherever it wanted. You’d think every councillor imagines that they’re representing the District of Duckworth & Water Street!

And what is with it with all this demand by developers for downtown office-space? What bizarre sense of entitlement leads every paper-pusher, every lawyer, every banker, every investor, every marketer, to think they deserve an office in an ugly glass building overlooking the harbour? This is not to say we shouldn’t develop the downtown: it is to say that it’s patently stupid to waste prime downtown space on offices! What are these people doing, staring out their window at the harbour all day? Aren’t they supposed to be working? Making us money and stuff, not taking selfies with a harbour backdrop? Office buildings ought to go not in the most scenic part of town, but perhaps in the least scenic. Stick them, oh I don’t know, out on Torbay Road somewhere. Make a whole neighbourhood of office buildings. Because you know what? You build it [offices] and they will come: the fun cafes, the creative fusion lunch spots, the shopping malls. So long as this bizarre fetishistic concentration of everything downtown continues, the rest of the city languishes. It is irresponsible.

Moreover, any development that is approved for downtown ought to be held to an even higher standard than development elsewhere in the city. Have you seen the sketches for the “boutique hotel”? How can that be called even remotely attractive? And nor can the other cheap-looking hotels that have been cropping up downtown. Given that the downtown is in many ways the oldest and most attractive part of the city, developers ought to be required to put greater effort into their projects; not these quick-buck turnover schemes, where they smash an antique building near the harbour and throw up a hotel that looks identical to something you could see in any other city. Hotels and office buildings ought to be required to demonstrate innovative architectural designs which will make them both higher-quality than your average structure, as well as ensure they contribute to the city’s attraction as a tourist destination. Perhaps they would need to procure the services of world-famous architects, or the services of cutting-edge experimental architects from the local scene. The Rooms is a good example of this. Yes, it will cost developers extra. But if they want to contribute their mark on our downtown, let them pay. The downtown is not for them to line their pockets with, but for us to build our province’s reputation and economy on. It’s an investment for all of us: not a handful of fly-by-night developers.

Innovators who fail to innovate

There’s an element of responsibility borne by our business community, too. Call me harsh, but our business community is lazy. It’s lazy and unproductive. Just look at that hotel! You call that an accomplishment? It’s a conventional, run-of-the-mill make-a-buck scheme. And that’s the problem with our business community; instead of thinking about how they can apply their expertise to making our city vibrant and great – a truly world-class city – they opt for the simple little quick profit-turning schemes, like a cookie-cutter hotel or office building downtown. It’s the same reasoning behind all those ugly quick-build housing projects popping up outside of St. John’s, or those bizarre monstrosities of mansions peppering a growing number of our outport communities (summer-homes for the CFA CEOs, towering over the rest of us livyer peons). Yes, all these projects make a quick buck for a developer here, a contracter there, and short-term jobs for our workers. But what’s the long-range strategy here people? All these things do is contribute to making the most beautiful and colourful place in North America rapidly into the ugliest and most boring. Good for the few who will profit for a year or two. But all of us are gonna have to live with the consequences.

We need a city council that has a plan. Not a 5-year plan. But a 50- or 100-year plan. A 500-year plan, even. That’s the kind of long-term thinking we need.

Well, that’s my take on the “St. John’s: City of Hotels” debate. Yeah, I oppose sticking hotels and offices down there. And I oppose it because I support a proper, long-term, viable developed future for Newfoundland and Labrador.

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