The St. John’s city budget for 2010 was decidedly status quo, but the year is shaping up to be anything but. This year will see the much-anticipated launch of the curbside recycling program (due in spring, although disappointingly slated to be optional), as well as the first full year of not dumping raw sewage into the harbour. The city is facing increased costs related to these massive undertakings, as well as in most other areas such as snow clearing, and road maintenance. This leaves council to look at their short list of ways they can generate revenue to make up this difference, while maintaining (or increasing) service levels. What inevitably comes up as a solution is new tax dollars coming from development. Higher (compared to residential) rates of business taxes make new business developments particularly appealing because of the increase to city revenues.
Development in St. John’s is controlled by the St. John’s Municipal Plan. The Municipal Plan contains all of the regulations which new developments in the city must conform to, including: the uses of properties, height, size, colour, and style of buildings. These regulations were all designed to maintain the vision for the city of St. John’s outlined in the plan, including preserving the heritage character of the city.
Current height restrictions for buildings in the downtown heritage area allow for buildings to be an absolute maximum of ten stories. For a building to be the full ten stories, it must meet several criteria, including “preserving harbour views from streets and public open spaces.”
I would bet my socks that before 2010 is out, these building regulations will have been challenged, if not changed. Fortis, the owner of one of the largest buildings in St. John’s, may be the first one to try and change these regulations. Councillors O’Leary, Colbert, Hann, Hickman, Breen and Hanlon have all confirmed that they have met with Fortis to discuss the concept for a redevelopment of the current Fortis Building on Water Street. There has been no formal proposal for this concept, but the idea is for two fifteen-story towers. It is likely that no proposal has been submitted because the Municipal Plan would not allow for buildings of such a height.
What really worries me, as a person who enjoys sunlight downtown, is that there is a very real chance this might happen. The challenge for council will be to balance the benefits of new revenue with the cost to citizens of this fine city. This is difficult because: it’s easy to point to the benefits of new development, which show up nicely as dollars on an accountant’s ledger. While it is impossible to quantify the feeling of waking up to the sun rising through the narrows, or the awe of a first time visitor seeing a fog-clad Signal Hill.
Catch Andrew live-blogging city council meetings every Monday at www.twitter.com/thescopeNL