Look up, way up

The empty lot at the corner of Water and Prescott street may soon be home to a new hotel. Should it be 11 storeys? 6 storeys? Does it really have to be a hotel? Can we be Europe and Toronto at the same time?

by Sarah Smellie

The empty, gravel filled lot at 123 to 125 Water Street is quickly turning into a crystal ball of sorts.

With a shiny new council (well, in a way) and a shiny new mayor, a recent proposal by Halifax based Southwest Properties—the folks who took over Atlantic Place—is about to reveal a whole lot about where this post-Andy Wells team stands on development in the downtown core.

Here’s the deal: Southwest Properties recently proposed the construction of a four star hotel, complete with restaurant, conference rooms and underground parking, at that very site. The catch? Their initial proposal was for a two part building, with a four story section facing Water Street and an eleven story section facing the harbor.

Yep, eleven.

For a bit of perspective, the TD Building weighs in at ten.

The current zoning regulations for that area—and a fair chunk of downtown—allow a maximum height of 15 meters, which works out to roughly four stories. The site has also been found to play an extra-special role in preserving the quintessence of the downtown core. Five years ago an economic development and heritage conservation study concluded that the present height and density regulations ought to be maintained. Most recently, the architecture firm PHB Group Inc. completed a study of public viewscapes in the city. The study concluded that a taller building would wreck many classic harbor views, views which are crucial in shaping impressions of the city and preserving the downtown character.

Basically, that gravel pit is a heritage hotspot.

“It’s a very sensitive and important site,” agrees Ward 2 Councilor Frank Galgay. “Any decision about it is going to relate to the future of downtown.”

According to Planning Manager Ken O’Brien, the city is looking at granting “bonus area” status to the site, which would allow for a taller, larger building to be constructed.

“With bonus areas, we consider impacts on traffic and parking, the impact on the street, impact on public views to and from the harbor, and we try to minimize impacts on heritage areas,” he says. “It’s a balance of whether it’s a good use for the site and a good use for downtown.”

In his epic reign, Andy Wells oversaw a number of bonus area buildings, such as the TD building, the Scotiabank building, and Mile One Centre. This is perhaps the first time a development issue this sensitive has been in front of council since he left council. Their final ruling will certainly set a precedent for the inevitable slew of similar proposals that will come as the city gets bigger.

So far, none of the councilors are very keen on the 11 storey proposal.

“It’s not acceptable at all,” said Galgay.

They’ve asked Southwest Properties to scale things down a bit. Ken O’Brien says Southwest has submitted a tamer proposal for a hotel which would be six storeys high—and it will emphasize, financially, they think this is the smallest they can go. Both proposals are being assessed for bonus area suitability.

Contrasted with an eleven storey building, that six storey building will no doubt be far more appealing to some.

After all, as Galgay points out, “something has got to go there.”

But does it have to be a hotel?

Ward Councilor Debbie Hanlon doesn’t think so.

“I wouldn’t want to see a hotel there,” she says. She muses about the possibility of a public park space instead. “Look at cities like New York and all the green space they have. There’s no reason to not have that here.” The city ought to sit tight and wait for a proposal which is better aligned with the significance of the spot, she says.

In a growing city, how would you like your heritage: tall, grande, or vente? City council, Planning, and Southwest Properties are getting together at August 18th council meeting to duke it out.

“Stay tuned,” chuckles O’Brien.

To let the city know what you’d like to see at that site, or what you want for downtown, fire off an email to your councilor. Addresses can be found at tinyurl.com/­stjohnscouncil .

6 comments

The Novaks Give Big

Big World, that is — The title of their forthcoming free EP.

14 April 2010

  1. gtron · April 14, 2010

    sirs: why is everyone afraid to mention who the “SouthWest” people are? (SouthWest?! this is the North East, and why are we listening to twits from Halifax?) Why doesn’t anyone mention that the owners of the property are Tommy-boy Williams (the Premier’s brother and bad poser on the Odea-Earle advertisements) and Ken Marshall brother of Danny’s former partner in the legal business?
    Can you say old boys network?
    neither CBC nor you all nor anyone brings this up – why not?!

  2. MrChills · April 14, 2010

    It’s time for St. John’s city council and the Heritage group to grow up!!! Pun intended..
    I’m all about keeping the heritage integrity of the capital city, but, the city centre has to become denser. We continue to waste land all around the city and Northern Avalon with our current fever for suburbanization, when there is a lot of good land in the city core going to waste. There are already high-rises all around this area and it wouldn’t block any view. St. John’s needs to lift some restrictions on how land be developed, especially in cases like this where it’s a gravel lot.

  3. space lover · April 14, 2010

    Personally i don’t really see the appeal for staying harbour side no matther how schmancy the accomodations… who wants to pay for a front row seat to the human excrement show?

    i know you don’t often see it (though other floating flushed debris you do) but it’s no secret the smell rises. seems like a cruel trick to play on paying customers.

    i suppose once the treatment facility gets going – maybe that will be less of an issue, or a non issue, but there is always the rats. Anyone who has wandered down to harbourside park at night knows that’s where to go to see the usually unseen creature.

    ****

    in terms of city planning it seems like a bad idea, mostly because new buildings in this city are usually designed by people who lack any vision / concept of heritage or surroundings. so what you end up with is another eyesore that looks apart from the rest of the city. see also, the delta, atlantic place, scotia centre, the td building ect.

    i figure this pattern has something to do with the fact that the people who have the wealth to build new buildings operate with a corporate mindset not a wholistic vision of what a new building means to the city and the people who live in it. They can’t quite or make the choice not to pay for an architect with vision, for their own financial interest and the results are inevitably just another artless “modern” structure that gets the job done.

    re: mr. chills a building in that lot will obviously block the view, as right now you can stand on the street corner and see the hills, ships and narrows and if a building was there you could not.

    what’s wrong with having a vacant lot? why does every available space have to be developed? why can’t grass grow there… maybe some trees. without the faux designed concrete framed sculpted “nature” thing. The city itself is pretty green, but from new gower/queens/military on down to the harbour front it’s pretty crowded & natureless.

    do tourists/visitors to the city ever actually have the problem of not being able to find accommodations? With the five downtown Hotel/Inn’s I am aware of and the many bed and breakfasts – it seems like an unnecessary development.

    barring the idea of favouring nature and a view for pedestrians maybe city planners could offer up something their vision of downtown actually could use like more parking. It’s not ideal, but at least a parking lot wouldn’t block the view.

    If you yuck up the city visually that will probably take away a lot of the tourist appeal… people come here to get away from their soulless urban existence. while we might have a decade or two of oil money to roll around in. what are we left with when that peters out?

  4. jason · April 14, 2010

    WHY NOT MAKE IT INTO A FARMERS MARKET TYPE FACILITY. A PLACE FOR SMALL BUSINESS TO SET UP ON WEEKENDS AND DURING SPECIAL TIMES DURING THE YEAR.

    THAT WOULD ADD MUCH NEEDED SPICE TO THE DOWNTOWN AREA. MAYBE EVEN PROVIDE SOME NICE OUTDOOR FAMILY / ENTERTAINMENT SPACE TO THE AREA ETC. GIVE IT LESS OF A DIRTY, BLAND FEEL.

    IT COULD DOUBLE IN THE WINTER FOR PARKING MAYBE.

  5. chris shortall · April 14, 2010

    who feels like starting a tent city?
    this city is becoming a place for visitors and not for residents.
    why is the city allowing all these developments in the core when they could be on the fringe?

    i suggest taking some of the lots (that are already for sale) nearer Hamilton Road and building high rises.

    what about the absolute lack of quality resturant spaces in the down town core, if they need work fixing kitchens then the resturants need somewhere to relocate to in the meantime. not more resturants, just fixing the ones that exist.

    not more view blocking ugly monstrosity buildings (like the one on duckworth across from CBC)… but buildings that provide spaces for people to USE and are architectural assets to the city, the skyline, and the people.

    i propose a tent city on the lot next to CBC

    and as for our historic gravel pit on the harbour front, fuck SouthWest Properties, lets get the campers in there.

  6. giter · April 14, 2010

    gtron -maybe because they/we all didn’t know, and it took someone of your cranial dexterity to do eloquently inform us.