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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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