Illustration by Ricky King.
How the heck do you put a stop to sprawl? Is it even possible to stop, once it has started? These questions seemed to be of grave concern to our beloved Big Idea contributors, so we consulted local architect Jim Case, organizer of last year’s harbourfront charette, and Robert Mellin, professor of Architecture at McGill University, St. John’s resident, and author of the 1995 report A City of Towns: Alternatives for the Planning and Design of Housing in St. John’s, to see if there’s any possibility of stopping the Sprawl Monster in its tracks.
Interviews by Sarah Smellie
Get rid of the four storey height restrictions.
Do you think that increasing density in the downtown area should be a priority?
I have no difficulty with it, but that can only done with an allowance of additional height on downtown buildings and making sure that we infill where we have these horrible, white elephant open lots now.
So we should treat each proposal individually and get rid of these blanket everything-must-be-four-stories-or-less kinds of rules?
Exactly. I don’t think they make any sense. In terms of all of the development regulations and guidelines and everything else, you can meet all of those and still put up poor architecture. We can now actually produce a virtual model of any building that we design and plunk it down in downtown, while everyone is there, and say: “Here are the impacts!” while everyone is there. This gives the public an opportunity to judge for themselves, to ask if it’s good architecture and if it contributes to the urban fabric of St. John’s.
Vancouver has been successful with tall, skinny residential buildings that have grocery and retail stores on the bottom floors. Would that work here?
No, I don’t think that would really work, certainly not downtown anyways. The large concentrations in Vancouver are mainly residential condominiums. Although I am a huge supporter of getting people living downtown, I’m not sure that that should be the main emphasis, I think I’m much more democratic than that. Our downtown needs to be for everybody.
What would work?
I think that mixed occupancy and mixed use zoning (zoning which allows for both residential and commercial uses in one building) are vital for the health of downtown and St. John’s has been sort of taking these little baby steps in that direction since about 1994 or 1995.
Where should we be developing as St. John’s grows?
Returning young professionals will need to be housed somewhere, and there are lots of opportunities in this city for that. The Pleasantville development, for example. It’s a very democratic process that Canada Lands is undertaking to create a strong urban community with a good mix of occupancy and income levels. But there are other places and you will see them. I’m working on one of them right now! [laughs] These places will have high-density growth, from three to four storey condo developments to ten storey apartment style developments. But this should also be mixed, we should be encouraging the return of the small dry goods person, the pharmacist, that sort of thing, to create neighbourhoods.
More planning, more public participation.
What can we do to increase density in the downtown?
The first thing we need to do is change our approach to city planning. Let’s take a look at Helsinki. They have a similar climate and their population is about 570,000. In St. John’s we have about a third of that, in the metropolitan area. Helsinki employs 270 people in their city planning department alone, 90 of which are architects. As well, every bit of infrastructure, every proposal is scrutinized, vetted and debated by the public. Models are made, drawings are made, and there are competitions for almost every project. The city thinks very seriously about growth control, about transit-oriented planning and maintaining higher densities to support the public transit systems. Everything is designed with the future and well-being of the city in mind. And they maintain a robust economy. In fact, they have a surplus!
These are exactly the kinds of things that we need to be thinking about and talking about here. Participatory planning, getting everyone involved, and thinking about the public good are all key to a successful city.
Is there hope for us?
I think it might be almost too late to change the way planning is done in St. John’s. The suburbs are already there, people already have their bad habits of driving everywhere, often in cars that are too big, and it’s a little late to turn all that around. And it’s catching up to us.
Should we remove the height restrictions downtown in order to build taller buildings and accommodate more people?
I think that’s ridiculous. I spend a lot of time in Montreal, in which there are huge, high density, mixed use areas without high rises. If you do it properly, you don’t need higher densities than those—two or three or four storey walk-up housing with offices mixed in with that, small commercial, and light industrial. You find similar areas in the East End, or in Georgestown. And there are still possibilities for similar development in St. John’s. We don’t have to go high.