Archive for the 'City' Category

Tighten The Belt

Dec 10 2013 Published by under Full Tilt


Is it time for St. John’s to consider an urban growth boundary?

In medieval times, cities had defensive walls for protection from invaders. Walls created a tidy separation between civic space and wilderness. They also had the unintended side effect of limiting the growth of cities, and gradually driving them towards higher density. They fell out of fashion along with city-states and barbarian raids, but in the last few decades, the city wall has been reincarnated in a new form—made not to keep things out, but to keep the city in. ‘Urban growth boundaries’ and ‘greenbelts’ have been implemented by many municipalities to limit development along the urban edges. Given the pace and character of current developments here, I have to wonder if St. John’s, too, should have an urban growth boundary.

What we have right now is a city limit—set to encompass large areas of open land far beyond the actual developed urban areas of St. John’s. This makes sense for some reasons, including controlling the use of watershed land. A greenbelt or urban growth boundary is not the same thing as the city limits—it can lie well within the city limits at the point of intersection between urban development and wilderness. Ottawa is an example of this type of set up—where a ring of natural or agricultural land is zoned as undevelopable, beyond which lies the city limit.

In Portland, Oregon, a successful but controversial urban growth boundary has helped preserve natural land, reduced traffic congestion, and justified transit oriented development. It has helped regenerate vacant historical buildings, as well as keep businesses in the urban downtown core without contributing significant increases in land prices. Critics have argued that a negative result of the growth boundary has been a decrease in affordable housing.

St. John’s has always had unofficial urban growth boundaries on its west, north and east sides—Pippy Park to west, Torbay (and Logy Bay) to the north, and the South Side hills to the east. This has resulted in its particular north-south linear configuration. Also, to the south, Mount Pearl creates a part of that boundary. This results in a kind of upsidedown ‘U’ shape, that opens up right about where the site for Glencrest is located.

As we have all heard about, this 2,179 acres of mature boreal forest is slated to become a new suburb the size of Mount Pearl, and will undoubtedly share the common characteristics of sprawl—unmanageable transit, strip malls, box stores, inhospitable roadways and fast food chains. Not to mention hundreds of new single family homes (which, by the way, are becoming less and less affordable or even suitable for the needs of new homebuyers’ family structures and lifestyles).

It seems to me that the approval of this development clearly contravenes the directives set out in the Municipal Plan at section 1.2, which states that “Achieving a compact city requires commitment to orderly land use patterns. In addition to the direct commitment to increase density and mix land uses… the city must also limit growth in areas where it may threaten the natural environment and require the extension of infrastructure networks at undue cost.”


The city tried to incorporate the tenets of ‘smart growth’ (which includes limiting sprawl) in its previous municipal plan but that plan was either too dilute, the city simply didn’t follow its own regulations, or developers were speaking a language that navigated around these directives.

For me the troubling question is, has the opportunity to achieve a more complete urban growth boundary been lost? It’s quite possible that an effective closed ring could be achieved with the inclusion of the Glencrest land and adjacent greenspace to the south.

Also, has the opportunity been lost to redirect that development back into the existing footprint of the city, to further improve and enhance the value of the urban space we already have (such as generating the critical mass required to make public transit effective and financially self-sustaining)?

I am not totally confident that our current mayor will recognize the urgency of addressing these issues. Nor do I expect that regulating sprawl developments will be high on his list of priorities when you have crises like unprotected gazebos and fenceless harbours to deal with.

But I am pretty certain that there is sufficient room, including open lots and vacant buildings, within the developed core of the city to build more housing, shops, offices and even industrial space, and in doing so making what we do have more valuable to everyone. “Smart Growth” was a phrase that got thrown around alot in the last campaign, but I think the city leaders need to be honest about whether or not all current and future developments are really held to that standard.

Tighten The Belt

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St. John’s city council live blog for September 9, 2013

Sep 10 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for September 9, 2013

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2013 St. John’s Election Endorsements

Aug 28 2013 Published by under City,Election,News & Views

Fellow citizens of St. John’s, we are on the brink of big change. Real change. And you get to play a part.

This upcoming municipal election is exciting. And important. Along with some quality veteran councillors who know what they’re at, you folks have the opportunity to elect a slate of passionate, open-minded people who seem like they will actually listen to you beyond the point where you promise them your vote. There are some truly promising people running in this election, and there are wide-open spaces for them to fill: veteran councillors Shannie Duff, Gerry Colbert and Frank Galgay are bowing out, as is councillor Debbie Hanlon.

That’s four out of eleven people.

On top of that, St. John’s is in full-on crazy boom mode. With offshore oil developments nearing their peak (haha, peak!) and others on the horizon, the prospects for our economy are looking friggin’ good. Basically, there are dollar bills flying out of oil pipes, raining down on us like if we were in a video with Fat Joe. And it’s up to us to decide what to do with that cash.

This election will affect the people living in St. John’s for a long, long time. Which means a lot of positive, awesome things could happen as a result of the decisions you make this month.

We spent the past month talking to people engaged in local politics, sifting through campaign websites, and reading back through council minutes. We also sent a questionnaire to each candidate running in the election, hounded them to complete it, and sat around debating issues from toll booths on Pitts Memorial to the balancing act between vision and teamwork in council chambers.

We chose the people we think ought to sit behind the big desks at City Hall. Our endorsements are based in part on their responses to our questionnaire, in part on their history, and in part on recommendations from trusted sources.

We looked for leaders who are articulate, flexible and adaptable enough to keep up with changes in thinking and social awareness. We looked for people with new ideas.

As for our pet issues, we like the idea of increasing urban density and putting the brakes on unnecessary sprawl. We think the next council should be tech-savvy and able to reach people where they’re spending time online. We like bicycles a lot, and we’d like to see the bike initiative work out. We’d also like to see increased transparency and accessibility. Shouldn’t we be able to have a say when projects like the harbour fence are enacted?

Here are the candidates that get the official Scope nod for City of St. John’s Municipal Election on September 24th.

Sheilagh O’Leary

Sheilagh is big on public consultation, she cares about making neighbourhoods as livable as possible, and on creating a progressive municipal plan that pays attention to environmental issues. She has shown herself to change her tune when the public reaction called for it. The big example of this would be her retroactive contempt for the harbour fence project that she, along with the rest of council, voted for. This could be seen as a good thing (she listens to public outcry!) or bad thing (she didn’t do her homework!)

She’s accessible and heavily involved in the community, and we think she’ll lead a progressive and innovative city.

The mayoral race is the one to watch.

In the other corner we have Dennis O’Keefe, a two-term incumbent with a reputation for being a super nice guy. We also have mental health activist Geoff Chaulk.

O’Keefe can rightly feel confident that he has a good shot at re-election, and he’s running a quiet, front-runner style of campaign. But, while Chaulk’s candidacy has been marred by more gaffs than a flounder boat and more WTF moments than primetime on TLC, O’Leary has been out there every day with new comments on different issues.

In the 2009 election, she was elected as a councillor-at-large by the largest number of votes in St. John’s electoral history24,056 votes. For comparison, O’Keefe won the mayoral race in the same election with 20,944 votes.

[CORRECTION: While O’Leary won the greatest number of votes that year, it was not the greatest number of votes in St. John’s electoral history. In fact, O’Keefe himself, in 2001, won his at-large seat with 26,122 votes. The Scope regrets the error.]

Realistically, it’s going to be a showdown between O’Keefe and O’Leary.

Geoff Chaulk has a long career in public service in the realm of healthcare. According to his questionnaire, Chaulk is a cat-loving, “54-year-old, chronically single man” who left for Toronto for a large part of his career. The major issues Chaulk is campaigning on include affordable housing, emergency preparedness, and a revolutionary idea to tax commuters residing in outlying towns. The commuter tax idea has earned Chaulk some scorn in the court of popular opinion, but it’s actually not the worst idea we’ve ever heard. That said, it’s been hard to take Chaulk seriously as a mayoral candidate. If he was more realistic, he would have run in a ward or at-large.

Dennis O’Keefe is a candidate of the status quo who does pay lip service to heritage and planning issues at times, but has not always backed that up with action. Case in point—when Fortis wanted to redevelop their tower on the corner of Water and Prescott, and at the same time tear down a block of several adjoining heritage buildings which are an integral part of the post-1892 streetscape, O’Keefe was on board right away. He tried to say that anyone who opposed him was against jobs and against development. It never came to a vote and Fortis decided to build their new office tower on vacant land at the bottom of Springdale, but it was an interesting indication of O’Keefe’s thinking.

“His modus operandi is from back in the 90s when it was felt that you had to practically beg developers to build something,” said one of the people we spoke with. Today, though, with our economy, we are in a position to demand good development, and reject bad. If there is a market for the development, it will probably happen, and the conditions we place on it is what we demand in exchange for a better city in the long run.

Deputy Mayor
Ron Ellsworth

For the majority of the election cycle, Ron Ellsworth was the only candidate running for deputy mayor. Noted transgender rights activist Jennifer McCreath has been hinting at a run for council for a few weeks now, only to announce that she wasn’t running, then, just before we went to press, she officially announced she’s running for deputy mayor against Ellsworth.

Our vote here would go to Ellsworth, however. It’s good to have someone on council who will comb through the finances and question whatever he thinks doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, even though we won’t always agree with his philosophy. He shares the laissez-faire perspective on development of a few others on council, which means if it meets engineering standards and doesn’t impact nearby low density suburbs, he’ll likely be voting in favour.

That said, he’s held the office before, so he has the benefit of experience on his side. He’s the best and most logical choice for deputy mayor.

Ward One

Danny Breen

We can do business with this guy. He’s got some clout (he’s chair of the finance committee) and some experience on council. He seems like a good hand with the finances. Thumbs up from the Scope.


Ward Two
Andrew Harvey

There are some strong contestants in the Ward 2 race and it’s going to be a tough one to call, but Andrew Harvey is our pick.

There, we said it.

It’s no secret that he and The Scope have had a relationship over the past four years. But the reason we contacted him to cover city politics for us four years ago was because we were impressed with his vision for the city, his energy, his friendly spirit, and his persistence (part of us thinks he hasn’t stopped campaigning since last election, to be honest.)

And we stayed impressed with him. He stuck with the original weird and slightly boring gig of live-tweeting city council meetings, and no other media outlet could beat his live-tweeting attendence. He also never missed a print deadline.

Harvey has been busy advocating for affordable housing for the past six years, so he’s familiar with the ins, outs and in-betweens of this complex and important issue. It makes sense to us (tweet tweet) that he’s also big on connecting with the electorate via the web.

Other Ward Two Candidates

As for the other candidates, Jonathan Galgay seems a nice guy, and his uncle (Frank Galgay) is the outgoing Ward 2 councillor, and he has experience working on public policy at the provincial and federal level, but we couldn’t get a sense of his vision from our questionnaire or from the people we asked about him. In comparison with Lono, Fitzgerald and Harvey, all of whom ran for office in the 2009 municipal election, Galgay has the least experience on the election scene. That said, and no faulting the guy, we’re suspecting most of his votes may come from a case of mistaken identity.

Fitzgerald was runner up in the 2009 election and we can’t say we love his shrug-inducing slogan “Why Not Scott?” he looks to be mounting a pretty vigorous challenge in this race.

Simon Lono would be our runner up against Harvey here. His political bona fides are good. In his own words, he’s a “longtime community/neighbourhood activist with a keen interest in youth leadership and a strong background in public policy.”
[Update: Shortly after press, Simon Lono withdrew from the race, citing health reasons.]

Ward Three
Sarah Colborne Penney

There are three people vying for election in Ward 3, which encompasses much of the city’s west end. We have incumbent councillor Bruce Tilley, who has had a long history with municipal politics. Going toe-to-toe with Tilley are Walter Harding, a sales and marketing guy, and Sarah Colborne Penney, a non-practising lawyer and community volunteer.

We think Sarah Colborne Penney is the best choice for Ward 3. She is heavily involved in the community, and she offered the most thorough, ward-specific responses to our questionnaire. Of all three candidates for the Ward 3 race, she knows what she’s talking about and she’s the one who most obviously cares about Ward 3.

As of press time, incumbent Councillor Tilley hadn’t sent us a response to our questionnaire. He’s got a reputation for being in favour of building all buildings everywhere, regardless of heritage regulations so long as the people in his suburban ward don’t complain. He isn’t exactly the visionary we’re looking for on the next council.

Walter Harding has been campaigning for ages now, and we award him full points for perseverance.

Ward Four
Lou Puddister

Ward 4 encompasses MUN, the area up along Thorburn Road and around the Avalon Mall, and Churchill Park among other places. The ward was served by Debbie Hanlon who is vacating the position. (She seems to have vacated the position a few months early, actually, since nary a peep was heard from her all summer long.)

Anyone taking up the mantle for Ward 4 will be expected to advocate for the revitalization of Churchill Square, among a raft of other ward-specific issues.

There are two people running: Bernard Davis, who works as the executive director of the Church Lads’ Brigade, and Lou Puddister, a local businessman. This is Puddister’s first run for council, and Davis ran in 2009, narrowly losing a spot as a councillor-at-large to Gerry Colbert. Both of these candidates have kept a lower profile than some of the others running in this election.

The majority of our decision was based on a close reading of each candidate’s answers to our questionnaire. We’re pretty sure that “Meh” is not how we want to feel after reading through an election platform.

Lou Puddister’s business background will come in handy when called upon to tackle issues in Churchill Square. His stance on property taxes is promising too (as in, don’t increase ‘em any more). On the whole, we’d feel better about him for Ward 4.

[Update: After The Scope went to press, candidate Tracy Holmes entered the race for Ward 4.]

Ward Five
Wally Collins

Ward 5 is going to go to Wally Collins, no doubt about it.

“The Goulds tends to settle on a candidate once every generation,” said one of the people we consulted. “He’s unbeatable.”

Up until very close to press time, Collins was running unopposed, but Sherwin Flight has stepped up to challenge his reign. Flight is awesome, from what we can tell. He once created a website that tracked pedestrian accidents in St. John’s. More recently, he created a website——that’s possibly the most comprehensive source of information on the upcoming election, purely to engage voters. We used it extensively while doing our research for this feature.

We like Flight so much that it’s with great pains that we endorse Wally Collins for Ward 5. Collins rules. He’s known far and wide as a man of straight talk, and in his words he’s “running to finish some of the projects [he’s] started in Ward 5 and to assist and aid [his] constituents.”

One highlight from this last go-round of council was his disdain for council’s decision to preserve the bandstand in Bannerman Park, calling it a “piss-pot.” Plus, the man has a perfect attendance record. Vote for this guy.

At Large Candidates

There are thirteen candidates vying for four positions in the at-large race. There are some very obvious choices. There are a few nos, and a few people we’re neither stoked on nor antipathetical toward.

[Update: Paul Sears, Steve Manuel and Tom Badcock joined the race for at large after The Scope went to press.]

Art Puddister is a no. One of our consultants told us that, based on his performance last time on council, we wouldn’t find anyone less interested in working with community groups and understanding the issues around development. As we were told, “if you love suburban sprawl and couldn’t care less about heritage, if you want to see the northeast Avalon become a suburban, power-centred wasteland with fewer heritage buildings, vote for this guy.”

Tom Hann, one of the two incumbents running, also gets a no from us. He’s an apologist for the current [incredibly awful] Metrobus service. Hann tends to be pretty negative. In council he’s good at shooting down ideas, he picks fights, and he makes snide comments. Not cool.

There is also downtown business magnate Lorne Loder. He would definitely be a strong advocate for local business on council, but he has no other experience with politics that we know of, and we’re not sure what he’s all about.

We also have Deanne Stapleton, who’s run for council numerous times in the past. It’s pretty hard for us to get excited about her vision for the city.

Community activist Lionel West took unsuccessful runs at the Ward 3 seat in the last two elections. He’s very well-informed and his answers to our questionnaire were satisfactory. Same could be said for Cecil Whitten, who is a well-known disability rights advocate.

At Large

Sandy Hickman
We endorse incumbent councillor-at-large Sandy Hickman. Hickman’s history on council has been pretty good. He’s generally been an example of the type of competent, progressive community leaders that we’re keen to have more of on council. His experience as a member of council would also be an asset given that there will be a lot of new faces elected to city hall this September.

At Large

Derek Winsor

We also endorse Derek Winsor for the position. The man has cred. He’s the manager of Bridges To Hope, an organization that does outreach and provides services including a food bank to citizens in need. He used to be a school board rep who resigned to protest rural school closures. Let’s tally it up shall we: Works to help out needy citizens? Familiar with bureaucratic organizations and not afraid to make a stand? Sold. Vote for this guy.

At Large

Fred Winsor

Same goes for Fred Winsor. Seriously, this guy is legit. He’s Ph.D-educated in Atlantic Canadian studies and works as the conservation chair for the Atlantic Canada chapter of the Sierra Club. Every person we consulted with during the endorsement deliberations stated unequivocally that Fred Winsor is hands-down the best candidate for councillor-at-large, period. Smart, organized, environmentally conscious and socially conscious? You know what to do.


At Large
Dave Lane

And that leaves Dave Lane, another candidate we think is the bee’s knees. Lane is the real deal. He the founder of Happy City, a nonprofit sorta think-tank devoted to making St. John’s a better place. He’s also been on manifold other city-building committees and organizations. He knows his stuff, he has a progressive vision for the city, and we believe he has the energy and the drive to get it done.


Not convinced? Read the unedited questionnaire results (PDF) from each of the candidates below.

Sheilagh O’Leary
Dennis O’Keefe
Geoff Chaulk

Deputy Mayor
Ron Ellsworth
Jennifer McCreath

Ward One
Danny Breen

Ward Two
Andrew Harvey
Simon Lono
Scott Fitzgerald
Jonathan Galgay

Ward Three
Sarah Colborne Penny
Walter Harding

Ward Four
Lou Puddister
Bernard Davis

Ward Five
Wally Collins
Sherwin Flight

At Large
Sandy Hickman
Derek Winsor
Fred Winsor
Dave Lane
Art Puddister
Tom Hann
Lorne Loder
Deanne Stapleton
Lionel West
Cecil Whitten
Tom Badcock

For voting information, ballot drop off locations or to get on the voter’s list, visit

By The Scope Motley Editorial Crue
(Drew Brown, Elling Lien, Nathan Downey & Sarah Smellie)

2013 St. John’s Election Endorsements

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St. John’s city council live blog for August 19, 2013

Aug 21 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for August 19, 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for August 5, 2013

Aug 06 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for August 5, 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for July 22, 2013

Jul 22 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for July 22, 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for July 8, 2013

Jul 08 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for July 8, 2013

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St. John’s City Hall Cliff Notes

Jul 04 2013 Published by under Your City

Nathan Downey looks at the big issues of the past few months.

The days are long and sultry and sunlit. Public service on every level has hit barbeque season, and St. John’s city council meetings have dropped in frequency to once every two weeks. But, since we’re on the eve of an explosive election, it stands to reason that for a number of our elected officials, the summer’s not just going to be all pig roasts and coleslaw, clambakes and hootenannies. Instead, we can imagine hopefuls and incumbents burnishing their armour and oiling themselves up for a serious contest come September.

But now, as the political cycle has entered its languid summer snooze, let’s take a brief look back at some of the key issues, dramatic interludes, and hijinks that have been kicked around council chambers over the last year.

Rise in Violent Crime

On the evening of May 31, the quiet of a sleepy street in the Kenmount Terrace subdivision was shattered as a gunman in a car shot a magazine of AK-47 bullets into the wrong house. No one was hurt, but it was another in a string of high-profile episodes of violence to rock the city in recent months. Police are continuing investigations into an arson and firebombing they believe is linked to the Dauntless Street drive-by. In mid-March, a savage beating at Tessier Place led to the death of Joey Whalen and second-degree murder charges for Mount Pearl resident Kenny Green. Police believe all of these incidents relate to the illegal drug trade that seems to be ramping up in booming St. John’s.

Are these drive-bys, firebombings, and savageries indicators of what’s on the way for the normally placid capital city? Are the city streets about to become battlefields as players in the drug trade duke it out for control?

City council has taken measures to address the problems administratively.

In the wake of the Tessier Place murder, Councillor Sheilagh O’Leary helped organize a neighbourhood watch organization for the troubled street.

Council also approved the founding of a mayor’s advisory committee on crime prevention in the June 25 meeting. Naturally, as we’re in an election season, this no-brainer of an idea was subject to controversy: Councillor O’Leary accused Mayor Dennis O’Keefe of plagiarizing the idea for the committee from Ward 2-hopeful Jonathan Galgay. O’Keefe defended himself by saying that the idea came to him after consultation with Galgay. Regardless of where the idea came from, the committee will be struck and there will be an administrative apparat devoted to addressing the rise in violence.

The New Metrobus Terminal

Metrobus is slated to get a new terminal this summer. Maybe.

The $32.4-million facility, which is being constructed on Messenger Drive (Off Kelsey Drive), has been plagued with delays. It was originally scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2012, but 2013’s spring has come and gone and the facility is still not finished.

Councillor Tom Hann is council’s representative on the St. John’s Transportation Commission, and he says the facility should be done by this summer. Or early fall.

Meanwhile, council has been mulling over what to do with the old terminal facility. Right now the leading idea for the Freshwater Road terminal is to repurpose it as a permanent home for the St. John’s Farmers’ Market. Given its size, its proximity to green space, its large garage facilities, its central location, and its positioning along bus routes, this is actually a great idea.

Hotels, Hotels, Hotels

A glut of new hotels are being constructed in St. John’s to address an acute shortage of accommodations. Demand for hotel rooms is highest in peak tourist season, but the offshore oil industry and the Muskrat Falls megaproject also put strain on bed availability.

A Fairfield Marriott recently opened its doors at 199 Kenmount Road. Construction is beginning for a 200-room Sandman Hotel in the same area, and numerous other proposals have rolled through council.

Probably the most interesting of these is a proposal to build a rooftop hotel atop the Atlantic Place parking garage. A public meeting will be held July 4 to discuss the project. If it gets approval, it’ll be a welcome facelift for one of the biggest eyesores in the downtown area. The proposed hotel will feature 150 rooms spread out over three storeys on top of the parking garage, and will use mesh screening to disguise the existing structure and boost its deficient aesthetics. Stay tuned.

Goodbye Shannie

In May, Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff announced she would not be seeking re-election in the fall. This marks the closing chapter in a long and distinguished career in politics for the deputy mayor. Duff’s good sense and commitment to responsible development and heritage preservation revolutionized city council practices and oversight.

Her political career included stints as mayor and as an MHA, and her commitment to community service earned her the Order of Canada in 2003 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013.

Duff’s retirement means that Ron Ellsworth is running unopposed for the deputy mayor’s chair come September. Ellsworth, a prominent businessman, served as deputy mayor for Dennis O’Keefe until the 2009 election, when he took a run for mayor and lost. Unless an opponent materializes over the summer months, it looks like he could breeze back onto city council.

The Silly Season

The municipal election is imminent. On September 24, residents of St. John’s will go to the polls to select a new council. The rapidly approaching election means that council has entered the “silly season”, in which our elected representatives don their gloves and start duking it out in the ring of political rhetoric.

Right now the most exciting contest seems to be the mayoral race. Mayor Dennis O’Keefe is facing off against two challengers — councillor-at-large Sheilagh O’Leary and health activist Geoff Chaulk. Barbs have been hurled, signs have been brandished, and the mayor’s nice-guy persona seems to have been misplaced. Three months are left on the clock and it’s a pretty safe assumption that we’re all in for some pretty good political theatre.

The other one to watch is the race for Ward 2 councillor. Ward 2 encompasses the heavily populated downtown core as far west as Patrick Street. There are three contestants vying for the seat left vacant by Councillor Frank Galgay, who’s hanging up his council spurs — Frank’s nephew Jonathan Galgay, community activist Andrew Harvey, and political advisor Simon Lono. It’s a tough one to call at this point, but expect it to be a fierce competition.

Follow a live play-by-play of the city council drama every other Monday at 4:30pm on Twitter @thescopeNL

St. John’s City Hall Cliff Notes

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St. John’s city council live blog for June 25, 2013

Jun 27 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for June 25, 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for June 17, 2013

Jun 19 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for June 17, 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for June 10, 2013

Jun 11 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for June 10, 2013

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Your City for June 2013

May 30 2013 Published by under Your City

Illustration by Kyle Bustin

The signs are everywhere. Front lawns or windows spangled with For Sale signs. Classified websites hawking one-bedroom basement apartments for $850 a month P.O.U. Office towers and condominium developments sprouting like morel mushrooms after a forest fire.

When a hovel fixer-upper on Hamilton Avenue runs you $225,000, and when a split-level in Paradise costs $400,000, there can be no doubt: the St. John’s metro area is in the midst of an unprecedented boom. People really want to live here.

The city’s May 2013 economic update revealed that property values in the city have risen 106 per cent since 2006. By any measure, that’s an astonishing rate of growth, especially considering somewhere in the midst of that time span was the minor hiccup, the brief spell of indigestion in the world economy we’ve come to refer affectionately to as The Great Recession.

Generally speaking, economists take real estate prices as a bellwether of the overall economy, so it must be a fine time to live here in St. John’s. At least for some people. As with any place that has embraced consumerism wholesale, there needs to be some people who lose and some people who tumble out of the machinery like faulty gears. A real estate boom brings more than its fair share of growing pains, too, even for the un-disadvantaged.

City council seems to vacillate between being hip to alleviating these growing pains and being woefully underprepared for them. For instance, in the May 21 meeting, council unanimously voted to spend $1.5 million on developing an 8.4-acre park in the Kenmount Terrace area. The park will be adjacent to a larger swath of wetlands that the city was able to snag for $1. The wetlands will be folded into the city’s protective bosom. The park shows a clear recognition that people in the Southlands/Kenmount Terrace sprawlplex are in need of a recreation area, but as if to dissuade people from thinking that it’s an outright gold-star idea, Mayor Dennis O’Keefe was quick to say of the park (as quoted in a CBC article from May 21) that “Public transport won’t be a problem” because “Metrobus is just down the road.”

Ah, Metrobus. The diseased organ in the otherwise healthy body. Oh sure, bus routes extend to every sector and far-flung cranny of the city, but if you’re pressed for time or are in any way accustomed to things moving on a rigid schedule, forget about it. Some people would argue that a well-functioning public transportation infrastructure is vital to the growth of a city. City council is showing faint signs that maybe they know this too, at least on a theoretical level.

The new Metrobus depot, which cost $28 million, is scheduled to open later this year. Additionally, the Metrobus fleet is being upgraded, which will cost $15 million over the next three years. With these multimillion-dollar investments, perhaps the bus-riding public can be optimistic that one day soon, Metrobus will actually be of practical use.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media of late about the perils and pitfalls of the boomtown, specifically in the rise of hard drug use and the expansion of the prostitution industry. Whatever your position is on these blights, they seem insignificant in comparison to the broader problem of some people just plain not being able to afford to live here anymore.

The people who are going to be hardest hit by the rapid rise in real estate values are seniors on fixed incomes, young people just making their transition into adult life, and low-income citizens. Sure, the issue of affordable housing is complex and pretty much insoluble in a free-market system, but council at least seems cognizant that there’s a need for it. At the regular meeting on April 29, for example, council granted approval for a low-income housing development at 71 Guy Street that will be operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s just one development run by one charity.

Mayoral candidate Sheilagh O’Leary has been remarkably quiet on most issues since announcing her candidacy, except on the issue of affordable housing for seniors. She has broached the topic of doing more for seniors affected by rising property values and tax rates a number of times since the budget was approved in January, in most cases earning rebukes from the mayor and other members of council. The 2013 budget includes a review of tax rates for seniors with an eye to eventually providing relief for them, but O’Leary has repeatedly stated that not enough is being done. While it’s a smart issue for her to be campaigning on, it also happens to be true — the population is aging, and more and more retirees will eventually face the challenge of skyrocketing taxes that follow alongside skyrocketing property values.

While unveiling the city’s capital works budget for the next three years on May 13, some of council’s rhetoric strayed into the reaches of hyperbole. It was referred to as “an historic” document. “Our children’s children’s children” was a phrase that might have even been uttered at one point.

Cutting through the bloviation and bluster, though, it actually does begin to appear as a historic budget. The city is in the midst of a transformation that’s perhaps never been equalled in the almost 400 years it has existed.

And along with this transformation comes a raft of complex issues that council needs to be ready address in the long view. Stay tuned.

Election Watch 2013

Deputy-mayoral candidate Ron Ellsworth kicked up a minor war of words with the mayor, suggesting that city hall’s restructuring will result in a $500,000 salary increase. The mayor shot back that since most of the changes are internal, there will be almost a nil effect on salary.

As of May 21, ex-mayoral candidate Geoff Chaulk is back in the race. Chaulk dropped out of the mayoral race in April, citing health reasons.

Follow Nathan’s live play-by-play of the drama of city politics every Monday at 4:30 pm on Twitter @thescopeNL

Your City for June 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for May 27, 2013

May 27 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for May 27, 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for May 21, 2013

May 24 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for May 21, 2013

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St. John’s city council live blog for May 13, 2013

May 15 2013 Published by under Your City

St. John’s city council live blog for May 13, 2013

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