Don’t Fence Me In

The proposed design for a new harbour fence.

Have you seen the proposed design for the new harbour security fence? It’s an eight-foot tall security enclosure, much like a customs checkpoint in an airport, and it will be used to accommodate tourists coming off the cruise ships and other international security issues. According to the Port Authority, the “post-9/11 world” has seen Transport Canada tighten up its regulations for port security, and that means we need to have this secure area on the harbourside.

The design has met with little resistance. Reactions has mainly focused on 1) the cost of the fence and 2) who’s paying for it. It will cost roughly $800,000 with the bill being split between the city and the Port Authority.

I am surprised there hasn’t been more of a public reaction to the fact that this fence is being built at all. Think about it: our harbour, from Pier 11 (at the bottom of Prescott Street, near the Luben Boykov sculpture) all the way down to the Lyubov Orlova (near the Keg) will be behind an eight-foot fence with a brick base, brick posts and wrought iron railing, complete with plexi-glass windows as “viewing areas.” Are we seriously okay with this?

It’s true that the area has been fenced off now for a few years, behind a temporary, galvanized wire barricade. By comparison, a new brick fence doesn’t seem so bad, but the question of design is a red herring I think. The real question is: should we really be blocking off such a huge part of the harbour?

The problem is complex. The harbour is a working harbour after all, from the fishing vessel docks at Pier 19 next to Fort Amherst, to the container dock at Pier 4, to the oil industry docks near The Battery at Pier 17. There is a limited amount of dockside due to the naturally enclosed, long and narrow shape of the harbour. Erecting a giant fence along that dockside might seem to be the only solution.

But it’s a patchwork solution, one that underscores the absence of large-scale vision for our harbourfront. Reconfiguring the harbourfront itself could eliminate the need for this barricade.

Back in 2007, a local design charrette was held to generate ideas and master plans for a new harbour area. One that would accommodate public use rather than turn its back on it. This harbour charette saw local architects develop a number of interesting conceptual designs, more than half of which incorporated finger piers—piers that project out perpendicular or diagonally from the harbourside, increasing the amount of dockside space. There was also the idea of a small cruise port, which could accommodate all the needs of disembarking tourists, such as tourism info, money exchange, tour bus parking, and customs and security checkpoints.

Ideas like these could deal with the present-day security problem without shutting the public out of the harbour area. But the results of the charrette seem to have been forgotten and we are left with the current proposal: an eight-foot tall fence along Harbour Drive that will eliminate any possibility of a future promenade, and substantially block views to the water and the Narrows from street level.

I find it hard to believe that this fence is an inevitability. Let’s solve this problem in a way that doesn’t erase the harbour from the urban environment.


taken with Instagram

20 November 2012

  1. Sean · November 20, 2012


    I attended the charette you mention. I don’t recall anyone from the Port Authority attending it, but I could be wrong. What I do know for sure is that Mayor O’Keefe was definitely not there, nor was anyone there from Fortis, who own a significant chunk of waterfront real estate. The reason they didn’t go, I submit, is that they viewed the charette as being, for all practical purposes irrelevant to them. The major players have learned that they are better off ramming through their plans rather than seeking dialogue and engagement, because City Hall, for the most part is comfortable with that.

    I’m just as pissed off as you are about this fence business. One thing that is not clear to me is that with the current fence, it seems like sometimes part of it is blocked off and then its opened again. With the new fence, besides its hideousness (picture the glass roof over the “viewing area” covered with seagull and pigeon droppings) and alarmist permanence, does it mean that the harbour apron will forever be off limits? It seems to me that the bogeyman of security is trotted out to cover off all kinds of bad ideas.

  2. habby · November 20, 2012

    Great article! this is the first I’ve heard of this and I am not ok with it!

  3. Ship Shape · November 20, 2012

    I worked a lot with the Port Authority and the City in my previous employment. Transport Canada regulations involving ships travelling internationally (esp cruise ships) have tightened up significantly as a result of 9-11. To be in the security zone next to a ship (if you aren’t a passenger or crew member) requires a similar process as to be on a runway at an airport. Nobody wanted to put that metal fence down by the port but it became a requirement to be in the cruise business. Remember that the harbour apron isn’t just a place to walk but is a working area. I agree that finger piers would be a much better and nicer option but I can’t see such an expense happening in a time of money tightening.

  4. freddychef · November 20, 2012

    yes once more something that the city is involved with but no one seems to know–in this day and age I think the city needs to really revamp it’s website so such projects like this can be discussed in any social media format in a quicker way.

    The fenced itself will of course be an eyesore as like mentioned above it was not a well thought out plan. Is it just me or is this council always (it seems) coming up with nonsensical ideas? The point of tourism here, for many is that the harbour is open, that one can see, up close various types of sailing craft.

    The designs that came up in 2007 offer many interesting ways to develop the area. There has to be a better way where by the PA and the City can figure out a proper way to maintain the area for both pedestrians, deliveries, and even shops as mentioned above to accommodate tourists and the citizenry alike.

    As to `large scale` vision–this city is still stuck in the 70s with constant development of patchwork subdivisions tailored to car and truck movement. A lack of affordable apts, but room for 10 or more new hotels, no downtown cultural centre( I believe we are the only capital city with no downtown, or centred, library, wellness centre–pool, gym, learning facility.

    We see what I consider a waste of money in Bannerman park with a giant fence and new or revamped facilities that could have been a central plan for what I just mentioned. The old govt building there draws nothing nut a few wedding photo shoots per year. Would have made a great library and imagine an indoor pool and a gym there. A coffee shop, etc….the place would be a buzz with activity.

  5. jig · November 20, 2012

    Oh thank you, how kind of you to include ‘viewing’ areas so we can look at our own waterfront. And the fences, sir – brilliant. Can’t be too safe. Don’t want anyone wandering into the harbour. Wonderful to look out for us mere peasants!

    (I’d use doubly-thick plexiglass)

  6. Christopher Chafe · November 20, 2012

    Just a thought here but perhaps if the xenophobic attitude that is rampant here in St. John’s along with the stupid and archaic height and development restrictions on DT we would actually have a DT that has all that stuff, but when you value viewing the Irving Oil Tanks and how people lived in the very early 1900’s you end up with the mess that is St. John’s.

  7. Jordan · November 20, 2012

    Who said the public couldn’t go beyond the fence? There is a fence there now and you can still wlak in around it.

  8. Sean · November 20, 2012

    Hi Jordan,

    You can frequently go around the fence that is there now, although access to part of the harbour apron is sometimes blocked off from time to time depending on what vessels are in the harbour. Someone from the Port Authority might be able to explain exactly when this is required by law. The question I asked in my first post (above) was whether the new, permanent fence (not the existing one) will mean that public access to the harbour apron will be permanently restricted at all times, or whether access will continue to be free except during the visits of certain kinds of vessels.

  9. joy · November 20, 2012

    I, for one, don’t like the idea of this fence at all. One of the nicest things about the harbor is that we can actually get right to it, at least along the stretch from Prescott to Waldegrave. On the rare occasions when they need to restrict access to cruiseboats for customs and immigration reasons, they do; the rest of the time it’s our space and I like that. I don’t for a moment imagine that this new fence will be unlocked; I’m sure it means only those who are on the water can be next to it. And that is dreadful.

    What I also don’t like is that none of the development along Harbor Drive actually faces the water. The horrible new building now going up utterly ignores both the waterfront and the pedestrians on Water Street with the first four or five floors parking. Atlantic Place has great windows but no access from the water and only parking at street level. Scotia Bank utterly ignores its water side.

    Both sides of Harbor Drive should be places where people walk and dine outside and interact with the harbor that created this city, instead of a back turned against the most beautiful views in the city.

    The new fence will only make that worse.

  10. Kathryn Foley · November 20, 2012

    city fathers and the port authority have completely missed the boat with the wharf. Have you ever seen a picture of a cruise ship entering an uglier, less welcoming,less active, city harbour? If I saw the harbour from the cruise ship i would wonder where everybody was? The fact that the harbour is a working harbour makes it all the more unique. Keeping no public access except by a commercial restaurant is repugnant to me. Surely, there could be a pedestrian walkway along the inside of the wharf that is made safe with proper design. Any planners in any other city, use waterfronts as perfect starting off points for redevelopment and or renewal. Barring people from hanging out down there is reprehensible. There simply is no aesthetic other than oppressive security rules for a place that is not on anybody’s hit list. The fence is absurd and I didn’t know this was happening. It’s disgusting.

  11. Anna · November 20, 2012

    Great article and as usual no discussion allowed for the taxpayers of the City to give their opinons on whether or not Mayor O’Keefe should have contributed $400,000 of our tax dollars to this project. If it had to go ahead, then the Port Authority should be paying for all of it.
    Our downtown has got to be one of the worse in Canada, like those other people have mentioned, there is nothing down there to draw people to the area except bars and more bars. Off course when you do venture downtown, there is no place to park as half the spaces are taken up with ongoing construction work. I can only hope and pray that next time there is a municipal election, we will have some serious contenders running, people who actually care about the City and not about being elected.

  12. Andrew · November 20, 2012

    Seriously, if the events of 9-11 are true, and there exists a body of people with deranged belief systems, based on the direct connection between their actively seeking the death and dismemberment of followers of other religions, and their ultimate reward in heaven. Then is it not possible that another attempt will eventually be made to cause harm to ‘infidels’?

    If this is true… Then where will they (non-infidels) attempt to hit next. Well a basic observation on the behaviour of humanity is that they (we) will seek the path of least resistance. We all try to find the easiest way to do something.

    Therefore… If the rest of the infidels are so heavily protected, where do you think the next attempt will occur? A fence is not such a terrible loss to our freedom, if it is tasteful, decorative and (as a fence should be) protective.

    Finally… I think 800K is too much, but remember it is supposed to be built by the lowest bidder. (Bringing up other concerns.)

    Thank-you all

  13. Dan · November 20, 2012

    There may be a need for a smaller security issue to accommodate cruise ships, but surely fencing off the whole waterfront is a repugnant use of one of St. John’s greatest assets. Cities are supposed to be social sites that meet the needs of their citizens. The lack of any real vision or planning in the city is simply amazing.

  14. Mark · November 20, 2012

    This is slightly off topic, but upon a close look at the bannerman park plans, it appears the city also plans to put a fence all the way around it. Can the excellent Taryn look into this dreadful fence too?

  15. Joe · November 20, 2012

    Some credit the fact that St. John’s harbour is so open to the city, even during the war years, with a joyous but relatively incident free V-E day celebration as opposed to the one in Halifax.

  16. Stephen · November 20, 2012

    It seems most people think this fence is an awful idea. I guess the question now becomes, what can we do to stop it?

    If we wait until they start building it, I’m afraid we’ll have missed our window of opportunity.

  17. NBHerder · November 20, 2012

    Thank you for writing about this Taryn. I am so dissapointed this proposal is being considered for construction as presented.

    As you said, there has been much work already spent on improving this important part (the most important part?) of the city and certainly in ways that could address the concerns of the Port Authority without severing the public from the water “… all the way down to the Lyubov Orlova (near the Keg)”.

    If one accepts that Newfoundland and its people are largely defined by the relationship we have to the water and therefore, in St. John’s to the harbour, than this proposal distinctly redefines us. “Welcome to St. John’s, you will find our scenic and historic harbour directly through the Keg” … how is it that an Alberta beef (mis)steak house could become the one publicly accessible pier/gateway/bridge to the water?

    The fence design misses the mark completely and risks some of our deepest connections to our sense of place in the process. It has about as much connection to the place as that google-generated pixelated site image that, I can only imagine, present us this horrible idea from the point of view of a someone standing on top of a moving metrobus – no doubt, from the eyes of a terrorist.

  18. kevin · November 20, 2012

    wasn’t there death and dismemberment on Warbury Street a few years ago?

  19. Amanda · November 20, 2012

    I just came back from Halifax and spent a whole afternoon at the waterfront playground with my 20 month old daughter. It was beautiful and fun. No big fence to block the view. We should follow suit. They are actually doing more work to beautify the waterfront and make it even more accessible not the reverse. We should be doing the same. It really disappoints me that we have such poor city planning.

  20. anon · November 20, 2012

    “at !0 on the !0th to Thtop the Fenthe” …

    I read this elsewhere, but I’ll be attending:
    “they vote on Monday, so Dec. 10th at 10am sounds good to me.
    let’s occupy it and then they’ll know we’re serious.
    by the way, a handful of us won’t work, so tell everyone you know and the media and everybody.
    “at !0 on the !0th to Thtop the Fenthe”
    I’ll see you all there, looking for 20k+ turnout please.
    we’re talking about a city that has allowed a PRIME tourist spot (the Battery Hotel) to become offices for a non-tax-paying entity. these people are not to be trusted with the fate of our harbour.
    “at !0 on the !0th to Thtop the Fenthe”

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