Smart growth

Sarah Smellie talks with Maine lawyer and urban growth activist John Kaminski about Urban Sprawl vs. Smart Growth, a public forum for the Northeast Avalon.

Lightbulbs. Socks. File folders.

Twenty years ago, when the city centre included a department store, a quick walk downtown would get you everything on that list. These days, residents in the downtown vicinity have a fair amount of traveling to do—most likely by car, fifteen or so kilometers to Stavanger Drive and back.

This scenario is an example of one of the effects of urban sprawl, the process of a city spreading out onto rural land in the form of suburbs or strings of box stores. Some people argue sprawl is good, and that suburbs are what consumers want. Others argue that sprawl contributes to more traffic, more pollution, empty downtown cores and a lessened sense of community.

St. John’s residents Peg Norman, Theresa Mackenzie and Angela Heffernan have put together a public forum, called Urban Sprawl vs. Smart Growth­—Lessons from Maine, focusing on the Northeast Avalon region, to try to think things through. The forum features John Kaminski, a lawyer and advocate of anti-sprawl policies who works with GrowSmart Maine.

Kaminski has been coming to St. John’s for eight years, and has noticed many similarities between the state and this province.

“Maine and Newfoundland are both areas that have natural resource-based and tourism-based economies, both are places with just a few urban centres, and we struggle with many of the same economic development issues,” explains Kaminski.

Think-tank and action organization GrowSmart Maine emphasizes urban redevelopment, which it says involves investing in downtown areas to create more businesses, more public space and more low-income housing. Focusing on development in places where infrastructure already exists, he says, makes far more sense economically than building on untouched rural land.

“There’s no need for additional roadways, water systems, sewage, or school systems that might have to be built into new communities,” he points out. “The resources have already been spent.”

He also emphasizes that lively downtown cores are essential for healthy tourism, an industry that is near and dear to this city’s heart. “It’s extremely important in attracting people from away,” he says. “We faced that in Portland several years ago when a lot of our downtown storefronts were becoming vacant. The city’s tourists told us that was a major negative in their perspective.”

Like St. John’s, cities like Portland also had tons of old historic buildings which were costly and cumbersome to restore. In a recent article in the Telegram, Charlie Oliver, the CEO of Martek Morgan Finch and commercial real estate manager said that balancing the cost of bringing a building like the old Avalon Telephone Co. up to code would require charging more than $30 per square foot, per month, in rent. A spot in Atlantic Place goes for $14 a square foot.

Kaminski and GrowSmart Maine were able to solve problems like these by lobbying the state government to provide financial support for historic restoration. “The state of Maine last year enacted its own historic preservation program, which gives a state tax credit for 25% of the rehabilitation expenses,” he says. “If the rehabilitation involves affordable housing, the credit percentage goes up to 30%.”

The US government also provides a tax credit for up to 20% of the rehabilitation expenses of a certified historic property.

Here in St. John’s, the city will phase in your property tax increase by 20% increments over five years, but so far only the model shop on Water Street has taken advantage of that. The province, through the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, will also dole out up to $10,000 per property, if it has been suitably designated as a heritage landmark.

Both programs, however, are pretty restrictive.

Kaminski thinks St. John’s would benefit most from more retail stores, which would bring more pedestrians to the area. Stats on the St. John’s Downtown Development Commission seem to agree. Only 8% of residents polled in a survey by Market Insights reported shopping downtown at least once a week, whereas 42% of those people shopped at a mall once a week. Common suggestions for improvement were ‘more stores,’ and ‘more department stores.’ And 7 out of 10 respondents said they’d shop at a downtown farmer’s market.

According to Kaminski, shopping and living downtown are two of the best ways citizens can help contribute to anti-sprawl patterns. He also emphasizes the importance of getting together with like-minded people and getting involved in the city. “Become active advocates for the policies you believe in,” he says.

“Citizens have far more power than they realize.”

Urban Sprawl vs. Smart Growth takes place on April 15th, from 7-9pm in the Foran/Greene Room, City Hall. For more information, see www.happycity.ca

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Illustration by Ricky King.