Your City

Notes from city hall.

So! Fortis dropped the expected bomb of their formal proposal for the redevelopment of their Water street property last on January 19th. They want to build a 15-storey development in an area where buildings are limited to 4 storeys.

Before we can even think of if they should or should not, a larger question needs to be asked: What kind of city do we want St. John’s to be?

The Municipal Plan lays out a vision for St. John’s, which is what we want our city to become, as well as regulations, which are how we achieve that vision. Zoning laws and building regulations are quite possibly the most important tasks for any municipality. It’s what stops your neighbour from operating a plastics factory next to your house, or a company from opening a 24-hour strip club on your cul-du-sac… When exceptions are made, the whole reason for having regulations is tossed out the window.

Another part of the problem is that our present Municipal Plan was adopted in 2003, and was scheduled for review 5 years from then—meaning a review is almost two years overdue.

The Fortis proposal represents a breaking point for the city of St. John’s. If this proposal goes ahead, and the regulations are once again ignored for an individual development, property owners everywhere will realize that the regulations have become meaningless. The city will have set a precedent that they will entertain and approve proposals which fall outside of the regulations. We will then be voting on site-specific amendments to the municipal plan every week at council, passing any that can get 6 votes.

As it stands now, the Fortis proposal is in the hands of city staff, who are preparing recommendations to give to the Planning and Housing committee of council. What should happen is staff should recommend denying the proposal, citing the dozen or so ways it falls outside the regulations. Then council should immediately start the process of extensive public review to create a revised vision for the city, and set of regulations we can all agree on. After this, we’ll stand by the regulations, and we’ll make it clear to developers that the regulations are laws, not suggestions.

Only then can we guide this city to continue to grow into a place we all want to live, work, and play in. If the Fortis redevelopment goes ahead, you can expect me to be submitting my own proposal for a 40-storey plastics factory and strip club on Signal Hill.


  1. Jordan · August 25, 2011

    What kind of city do I want St. John’s to be?

    I want St. John’s to be a modern city that is able to compete atleast regionally with Halifax for business.
    I want St. John’s to have a downtown that is a unique blend of modern and historical. I think the Fortis development is good, though it won’t go ahead, as is and it would probably be just to complicated to approve after council restricted the height of the Water/Prescott Street hotel (which I think may have been a bad idea).
    I want St. John’s to have a city council that decides that they need to step in and draw out what they want downtown to look like. With actual pictures and not just policies, then have that council work with developers to move development ahead and to work to get ugly buildings retrofitted to be environmentally friendly and attractive.
    I could go on but most importantly I want St. John’s to be a city where I can live in. Unless development of office space happens soon I will probably end up living in another city in another province.

  2. Dave Johnson · August 25, 2011

    Your living in a dream world of the past. The city had plenty of time to clean up the area but now its ugly and in disrepair. As for Fortis they want to build new modern facilities that are up to fire code. Protest the old woolworths building instead. You people allow it to sit there and rot and ive heard nothing from you or Shannie about that dirt hole.

  3. Andrew Harvey · August 25, 2011


    I am not sure you really understand the situation regarding the empty lots around our city. The properties you are referring to, such as the old Woolworths building, are owned by private individuals. It is not the cities responsibility to “clean up” these properties, it is that of the owner.

    As my article indicates, the role of the city is the administering of building regulations which are created through public consultation. If you are concerned about the state of the Woolworths building, I suggest contacting the owner of the property. If you are concerned about the regulations for buildings downtown, contact your members of council and let you opinion be known.

    I’m not sure who you mean by “you people” either, but I have heard Shannie voice her wish for the Woolworth building to be redeveloped multiple times.

  4. Jordan · August 25, 2011


    If council can give a man a ticket for having a broke down car parked in his driveway to long then I don’t no why they can’t force the owners of the Woolworth building to keep the building looking half respectable.

    As well a proposal has already been given to council to redevelop the old Woolworth building and it was turned down like most developments. So obviously Shannie Duff and the other councillors can’t be to concerned with the building getting fixed up.

  5. HBeez · August 25, 2011

    I gotta agree with Jordan. City Council seems to have a vision of what our downtown should look like, and good on them. But there has to be a way for them to seriously enforce the cleanup of the abandoned buildings in the downtown. Woolworths and the empty lot adjoining, the old CBC on Duckworth and that whole area of Duckworth (especially the old building across the street, which has to be a major fire hazard if I’ve ever seen one). I think before they have the nerve to criticize any new development it’s time to make sure the existing buildings are meeting some sort of standard.

  6. Tom Roche · August 25, 2011

    Andrew I agree with Dave and I believe he is referring to the protesters not you in particular. I feel it is the councils responsibility to step in if property owners are not cleaning up their properties. All the vacant buildings and spaces down there are fire hazards and eyesores. Most people I speak to want to see these old buildings and sites developed . The Fortis project would be a great start for the area and I hope more companies follow. If someone owns vacant property they should be held responsible by the protesters and the council , instead they choose to do nothing but hinder progress and revitalization of our downtown area.

  7. Frank · August 25, 2011

    Andrew , I have to disagree with your comments regarding the strip club and plastics factory on Signal Hill . Nobody would support that and its just rhetoric. Although council did allow a historic building on George Street to become a strip club . I wonder who was on council at that time? Where were the protesters then when that was totally inappropriate , and where was Shannie Duff. It baffles most people in St. John’s that a small group of the same people will continue to protest anything that is good news for the city. A 75 million dollar project was unheard of in our city for many years. A huge company with money is willing to invest in our city and our province and still people whine and complain. Only in St. John’s I guess and by the way , visit mile one some evening ,its dark ,dingy and empty of life, again due to the negligence of council. Shame!

  8. Sandy · August 25, 2011

    Andrew, I think you raise several very good points in this piece. Some of these other commenters seem to be completely ignoring the idea that we need a vision for how development is going to take place, or else we’ll be at the mercy of any corporation that wants to do anything. Sure, perhaps our city needs a new Municipal Plan – but that’s no reason to completely ignore what’s in place right now. It’s just solid justification for revisiting it, and soon, with as much input from residents and experts (independent experts who are not on Fortis’ payroll) as possible.

  9. Andrew Harvey · August 25, 2011

    I think that what most people are confused about is the cities role in the existing eyesores around downtown. If the properties are not breaking any by-laws, then the city is in no position to “force” (as some people would have) the owners of those properties to do anything. This is in the same way that the city could not force a homeowner to renovate their home (again, unless they were breaking some bylaw).

    If you seriously feel that some of those properties are fire-hazards, I encourage you to complain about them, call 3-1-1, and make a complaint. The city will investigate the complaint, and if there is some bylaw being broken, then the city can force the property owner to do something about it. Maybe this might be the way to put pressure on the property owners to develop their properties.

    Allowing Fortis to break development regulations to build a 15-story tower will not solve the problems of empty lots or derelict buildings. I wish that people would understand that these are different issues.

  10. Jordan · August 25, 2011

    Well if there is no bylaw on having a building boarded up with black plywood then it is about time the council brings in a bylaw for this. I have read comments on CBC from people living downtown who say they had regulations on what kind of windows they had to put in their houses when they were renovating. Yet council allows for an eyesore of a building, in an area that could be a great part of downtown, to have the windows boarded up for years. I cannot imagine how anyone can say that this actually make sense. Companies are getting away with letting buildings rot and the citizens who are paying high taxes need to get their windows approved by council, I believe they had to be wooden which I can imagine is a pain to keep up with.

  11. Tim Rose · August 25, 2011

    Andrew , When you wrote this piece I hope you realize that there are a large number of citizens in this city who disagree with your postion regarding council . They should bring in bylaws to force these businesses and property owners to either renovate or tear down these boarded up buildings. The four story rule doesnt help clean up the downtown ,it just hinders progress . So we should concentrate on getting the downtown cleaned up and pressure council to do something about it. I think the Fortis development will be good for the city and clean up that end of the downtown area that has been neglected for so long. The real issue here is that most people understand that our council has failed us for years regarding the downtown area by hindering any development that would improve the area due to a stupid four story bylaw. On the other hand they fail to bring in bylaws forcing owners to clean up vacant lots or boarded up buildings . I disagree with your biased stand on development in the downtown area and hope you and the protesters will be looking up at a 15 story modern building soon. You will not impeded progress ,you can only delay it!

  12. Paul · August 25, 2011

    I just heard on the news that the historic schoolhouse in Quidi Vidi was voted to be demolished by city council . Unbelievable! Where were all the so-called heritage preserving councilors? Where are all the protesters now , I guess their busy trying to stop the Fortis project . Quidi Vidi is just as historic as St. John’s downtown area , but yet condos and homes were approved even in the heart of the community. I guess this will pave the way for further destruction of green space near this historic community. People protest when Fortis is trying to improve the downtown area , but yet fail to protect a 100 yr old schoolhouse in historic Quidi Vidi. Shannie Duff and her protesting supporters have a lot of explaining to do! I guess the schoolhouse was only one story high and wasn’t important enough . The developments that should go ahead are always protested and delayed and the real heritage sites are left to rot and get demolished with councils blessing.Pathetic!

  13. Do the Right Thing · August 25, 2011

    I think St. John’s City Council’s vision of downtown is the same as the photo at the beginning of this article (circa 1800).

    What kind of city do we want St. John’s to be? I want it to be a progressive city with a vibrant, inviting downtown area. By vibrant and inviting, I don’t mean the drunken debauchery on George Street.

    This development should go ahead as proposed. What’s the worse thing that could happen? The residents of Gower Street would lose their beloved view of the oil tanks on the Southside hills?

  14. HBeez · August 25, 2011

    Heritage isn’t just what came 100 years before us, it’s also what we’ve created for the people 100 years from now. At some point concessions need to be made to protect the important existing structures, but also be progressive in regard to what we build in the future.

  15. Jim · August 25, 2011

    Build the Fortis project and modernize the city. We have an offshore oil and gas industry. Where will all the business go? We need the office space to grow as a city.

  16. Andrew Harvey · August 25, 2011

    There are far too many posts here to respond to individually, (which is great, I think encouraging this kind of debate is excellent) but I will comment generally.

    The point I was trying to make in this article, which I think most people miss, is that I do not feel the issue should be about the Fortis proposal, it should be about the regulations. If the majority of St. John’s feel that we need to allow for taller buildings downtown (or anywhere), then the regulations should be changed to allow for this sort of development.

    What should not happen, is for St. John’s to continue what it has done too many times in the past, and allow exceptions to it’s own rules. When this is done for some proposals, and not others (as has happened), it is not fair to the developers who follow the rules, or the people of the city.

    No matter how people feel about the Fortis proposal, they tend to feel strongly about it. I think it is clear that the development regulations need to be reviewed, and changed. If the public, through real consultation, seriously want 15 story buildings on the waterfront, then so be it, but I want to hear it from the public, not a company with dollar signs in their eyes.

    As far as the run-down buildings, and empty lots downtown, I agree with most of you. Something needs to be done about these properties. Unfortunately, as I said before, city council is extremely limited in its power to force development on landowners. Maybe we need to look at creating a “use it or lose it” bylaw for property owners who fail to develop vacant properties downtown, I don’t know.

    No matter how you feel about these issues, I suggest you contact your council members and make sure your opinion is heard.

  17. Jordan · August 25, 2011

    Downtown development is such a heavy and complex issue with so many views wheather we agree or not everyone is entitled to their opinions.

    Some people complain that it is only a select few people who cause development not to happen because they want heritage and height regulations. Though I think it is fair to say that the people who want these developments to occur probably don’t care as much & are not as outspoken as the people who want to have height restrictions.

    City council should really consider drafting up two plans, one with height restrictions and more heritage preservation & another that would allow for high rises in the downtown area. Then put it to a vote for the people to decide, everyone would then have thir true opinions expressed.

    Obviously there would still be other things to be taken into consideration but if council knew what the majority citizens wanted it could realy help when considering developments.

  18. davelane · August 25, 2011

    @Dave Johnson : Here’s a press release regarding the Woolworth’s area that Shannie posted during the election in September.

    There’s a planning meeting on Thursday at 10am at City Hall where they will discuss that part of town. Andrew, maybe you can report for us?


  19. Jim · August 25, 2011

    I read the last post and cant believe that Shannie Duff would advocate development possibly above four stories for one section of downtown and not the other. I am glad she realizes the importance of compromise but I hope the Fortis development goes ahead. Both ends of the downtown area need development sooner than later. If so called heritage buidings are beyond repair then they should be torn down and replaced. Is Dave Lane against the Fortis Proposal because he seems to be a big supporter of Shannie Duff. I just hope all the derelict areas get developed before our downtown core really becomes a dump. I guess Mr. Johnson is just as frustrated as the rest of us are regarding certain citizens groups and councilors delaying many good news project that comes to St. John’s. I respect the opinions for and against but I am hoping the Fortis project and many more are approved to modernize and revitalize the area.

  20. Dave H · August 25, 2011

    I think the location of the proposed development is ideal.

    The downtown core would be flanked by Cabot Place on the corner of New Gower Street and Barter’s Hill, and the proposed development on the corner of Water and Prescott Streets. The properties in between these major landmarks could be limited to heritaqe type structures.

    St. John’s City Council would be shortsighted not to approve this development.

  21. Dave Lane · August 25, 2011

    Hey all,

    Yeah, I’m a supporter of Shannie. I’ve gotten to know her pretty well through various discussions and involvement in her campaigns. I find that her name has become synonymous with “anti-development” but that is a gross simplification of her position.

    There are many reasons to support height restrictions that vary from area to area. It is such a nuanced debate that it’s hard to get the message out effectively. But please do check out an FAQ Shannie wrote up which responds to many of our concerns as citizens in this debate.

    I have my own views, and they are based on a lot of thought and research (for the most part). If you want to get a sense of where I stand, you can check out the facebook group that I’m an admin of and see my responses to people’s comments:

    Cheers, all :)

  22. Bruce · August 25, 2011

    Let me state from the get go that I have never met the woman, yet I do not understand why so many of the writers here are making this a personal tirade against Shannie Duff. She won her Deputy Mayor seat based upon a huge number of votes, more than half of those cast. Her positions on downtown development, and in fact this Fortis proposal, were well known. Sheilagh O’Leary won her seat with over 24,000 votes. Her position on downtown developments were also well known. Similar results can be seen in the votes for Sandy Hickman, another councillor who was known to be against this proposal. Do people honestly think there are 25,000 ‘artsies’ in St. John’s? If so, Mark Wilson would be the mayor.

    The Woolworth building has nothing to do with Fortis. Council would love it if that was the site being proposed for development, as no one would care. Unfortunately, it is not. The owners of that space have chosen to do nothing, and council can do nothing about it, anymore than they can force you to plant turnips in your backyard.

    My chief complaint against the Fortis propsal is this – it is bloody ugly. And it will make that corner a dead zone after 5:00 pm. Everything, and I mean everything you read about urban development, says the same thing – adding 9-5 office developments does nothing to add to an urban environment. It is a lively and livable mix of residential, entertainment, retail and offices which makes a downtown a lively and busy destination.

    A lot of people writing here talk about Halifax. have they ever actually been there? Barrington Street is hanging on by a thread, its retail sector gutted, little or nothing to do after 5:00 pm. The city planners of Halifax envy the engaging character of Water St. Salter St. is a concrete canyon of glass towers, with no life whatsoever. The busiest street in downtown Halifax is Springarden Road, a street with height restrictions and human scale development, just like Water Street.

    I am old enough to remember hearing these same arguments in favour of Atlantic Place – new jobs, development, blah blah blah. And what do we have? An ugly box which everyone in the city hates.

    God, we should be smarter than that now.

  23. George · August 25, 2011

    The bottom line here is that the area around the Fortis property is already a dead zone. That is why we need new development there on that corner area. The proposed development by Fortis is far from ugly and we need to get this project going as soon as possible. The old Woolworth proposal also needs to get going this spring as well. Both ends of downtown area need development and the heritage area is in the middle . Its time to get on with progress!

  24. Jordan · August 25, 2011


    Just to make you clear on something the Fotis proposal would add three times as much retail space then is currently located there, so the development would not leave that area a dead zone after five o’clock like you have stated. Also even if the development did not include retail space that area still has plenty of other retail shops as well there is soon going to be a hotel there I doubt this section of Water Street would ever be a dead zone.

  25. Stephen · August 25, 2011

    As suggested by Shannie Duff, we need an old downtown, and a new downtown. Quebec City, the only other city in North America which can compete with the age and history of St.John’s has a new and old downtown. A total mixture just DOESN’T work. St.John’s is the oldest city in North America. Yet, for some reason we want to make a joke of the city’s biggest tourist attraction. This article doesn’t mention eye-sore buildings. We get it, they’re ugly, and at the same time they’re extremely irrelevant to the Fortis building. Why do we need more retail space? We want all these glamerous new stores in a city which doesn’t have a market to support them? I mean, there are several empty spots kicking around on duckworth and water. And the turnover rate in this city is messy, particularly downtown. Personally, I don’t care about 4 stories of retail space, the parking would be nice, but the retail space seems superfluous at this point in the city’s development. Plus, the new Woolworth location has retail space anyway.

    We don’t need a modern St.John’s. The principal thing that St.John’s has going for it is our history. And it’s time to preserve that history, like Andrew said, by the city council enforcing the regulation. A 15 storey building is like a punch in the face. They can’t even suggest something realistically appropriate for the area. This city’s history is important to me, and i’m sentimental. If these regulations are violated then there will be a shit storm. And much like other COMMITTED St.John’s residents, i’ll fight back.

    When I say COMMITTED residents, i mean true St.John’s residents. Not those who want to live in Halifax. Our most distinguishing characteristic as a city at this point is that we’re NOT Halifax. They’re modern and it is disadvantageous for them. I want my city, St.John’s, not another Halifax.

  26. davelane · August 25, 2011

    I don’t really consider that intersection a dead zone, myself. Certainly not from my experience walking there every day. There is definitely some work that can be done, though, and I think the condos going up on the vacant lot across the street will do a lot to energize the surrounding businesses.

    I’m also glad they are condos, cause there’s more of a chance for little grocers or whatnot to take hold down here. Yay density housing!

  27. Jordan · August 25, 2011

    Halifax is the economic hub of Atlantic Canada so they are obviously doing something right. I am also willing to bet they get alot more tourists then St. John’s does. Their downtown is nice and clean and has a great mix of old and new.

  28. Stephen · August 25, 2011

    I don’t know why you’d think Halifax has more tourists. If it does, it’s only because it’s more accessible. Halifax is just a mini Toronto. All these North American cities are generic and the same. St. John’s is the exception. Halifax being an economic hub of Atlantic Canada seems irrelevant. This is not about money or jobs or the economy. This is about protecting our heritage which is holding on by a thin thread. By valuing money and a “clean downtown” and preferring Halifax just proves your ignorance to what downtown St. John’s is all about; what heritage is all about. Newfoundlanders are identified by their heritage. And each step we get closer to losing it, the closer we become to forgetting who we are. Do us all a favor, and just move to Halifax, the clean yet violent, heritage-starved yet economic hub of Atlantic Canada. (currently rolling my eyes). St. John’s is special, and you clearly are too blinded by superficial factors to appreciate it. That’s a shame.

  29. Jordan · August 25, 2011

    Oh sorry see I thought companies investing $115 million into the city and creating jobs had something to do with the economy but I guess I’m wrong.

  30. Andrew Harvey · August 25, 2011

    The comparison with Halifax is not really a fair one regarding business and the economy. The growth that is being seen here in St. John’s is largely to do with the growth of oil companies and their offshore developments. The supposed need for class A office space comes from the oil companies who want offices near these investments. To suggest that these same companies would move their offices to Halifax is silly. They want offices next to the offshore oil, and luckily for us, we are a massive island which is a thousand kilometers from Halifax.

    I don’t want to see this city be blinded by the promise of money and jobs, and have us sell out our future. What will we do in 20 years when the oil money has slowed down, or gone. Who will fill the class A office space that is blocking our view then?

    For anyone that attended the public forum on smart growth yesterday, it was a great start to the dialogue that needs to occur between the city, the public, and developers. Check out the website and join the discussion online at their forum.

  31. Bruce · August 25, 2011

    I live in St. John’s but frequently work in Halifax. And I know for a fact that many people who live and work in that city envy the lively character of downtown St. John’s.

    Halifax enforces very rigid zoming and development rules for Spring garden Road, because they know that a human-scaled, retail/entertainment/housing/office mix works. And they know they got it right on that particular street.

    They also know they got it wrong on Barrington and Salter Streets, the other two main downtown arteries. Both suffer from office dead zones that empty after five, and have struggled to maintain any kind of retail and restaurant presence. Tourists hate those zones; instead they flock to Spring Garden Road and the historic properties, both of which resemble (surprise) Water Street.

    The constant comparison between Halifax and St. John’s, wherein we have to somehow give away something in order to maintain our presence in the pecking order is nonsense. The oil companies are not moving there. In fact, they have emptied their Halifax offices to get closer to the real action. For that matter, the banks and retail operations that pump money into Halifax are not moving here anytime soon either.

    We have somehow managed to hold onto something important here, a livable downtown which is attractive to residents and tourists alike. We should not let Fortis or anyone else ruin it for short-term economic gain.

    This whole ‘a few artists holding things up’ argument is also nonsense. More than half of the people of this city who voted in the municipal election voted for Shannie Duff. Her development stand was well known, as was Keith Coombs, whose ‘build it anywhere’ philosophy was also well known. They voted in a majority for Duff. Shouldn’t this majority be taken into account?

  32. Downtown Worker · August 25, 2011

    If the proposed Fortis development should go ahead, St. John’s will still be St. John’s, and nothing like Halifax. St. John’s vibe can be primarily attributed to its residents, not its architecture (or lack thereof). There are only a handfull of architectually significant heritage structures in the downtown area (the Basilica, Cabot Tower, Government House, etc) so I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

    I work downtown, and I think more Class A office space on the corner of Water and Prescott streets would be a bonus. I think it would liven things up in that area as I’m sure new pubs and eateries would open up nearby.

    We need to stop being resistent to change. Change is good!!

  33. Maggie · August 25, 2011

    Why does everybody support a 15 STOREY building in the heart of downtown when the maximum height allowed at the moment is 15 METERS according to city regulations? Why not stick it somewhere else further up the hill? maybe another building the size of Atlantic Place would be okay, but having such a tall building in the proposed location is ridiculous!

  34. Enough Already · August 25, 2011

    The Basilica was the prominent landmark “up the hill” before The Rooms was built. Another large structure is that area is going to further detract from its presence.

    Another building like Atlantic Place? I work in Atlantic Place and it is the most architecturally unappealing building I’ve ever seen.

    We seem to be caught up in the height of the structure, not the building’s architecture or character.

    Come on St. John’s, it’s time to be progressive, or are the only developments that we are willing to support are the big box stores on Stavanger and Kelsey Drives?

  35. Andrew Harvey · August 25, 2011

    I want to thank everyone for their comments on this story. This sort of discussion over issues as important as the future of our city is vital to an active, responsive democracy.

    The issue of development is an important one for many people who live and work in St. John’s, and often a divisive one. There is no magic solution which will make everyone completely happy regarding development regulations. The real trick is to find a middle ground that everyone can be happy with. This HAS to come from real public input, discussion, and debate.

    A municipal plan that is 2 years overdue for review is the closest thing this city has to that middle ground of development regulations. If the city is to fairly enforce any set of rules (that the public has agreed to), they need to fast-track the review of the Municipal plan, and start actively soliciting peoples opinions on development regulations. This is the only way the public’s voice will be heard in city hall, instead of only 11 voices.

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