Some municipal setbacks are the result of happenstance. The great fire in June 1877 that wiped out most of the Saint John downtown was such an event. The devastation was unimaginable but the City rallied and was rebuilt within a few years. Evidence of the “new ” Saint John can be found in the form of the historic brick buildings that today line King, Prince William, Canterbury and Germain Streets.
Some municipal setbacks are self inflicted, the result of decisions that those we elect make decisions on our behalf.
Drawing from Saint John history: Saint John’s urban renewal project in the early 1970’s had Main Street expended to a total of six lanes. It was expected that Saint John’s population would grow to about 250,000. The six lanes would be needed to “facilitate” traffic. We know how that turned out, Saint John’s population declined from 92,000 in 1971 to 70,000 in 2011. The consequence? The six lanes of highway severed the north end from the rest of the city and over the next 30 to 40 years what had once been a busy, vibrant neighborhood has become what is commonly referred to a a “priority” neighbourhood with boarded and vacant buildings. It will take decades if not a generation for the city to recover from what was a poorly thought out and executed urban renewal plan.
Next: The Saint John General Hospital built in 1931 was decommissioned in 1982. The wisdom of the day and powers that be had decided a new Regional Hospital in Milligeville would better serve the public. After failed attempts by a Montreal developer to purchase the hospital for $1,000,000 and re purpose same into “condos” the hospital was demolished in December 1995.
The removal of the General Hospital destroyed a local economic ecosystem and over the past several decades Waterloo Street and area has declined and added to the list of “priority” neighbourhoods in Saint John. The only residential development that has taken place on Waterloo Street has been the apartments build by John Rocca in the past couple of years.The reasons given for abandoning the General Hospital was that it was not current enough, not big enough and I’m sure there were more justifiable reasons. Were the powers that be right in their decision? Continue reading you be the judge.
The Kingston General Hospital was in built 1833 and upgraded in 1924. The early buildings form an integral part of a larger hospital complex that today serves almost 500,000 people. I find it a bit ironic that the Saint John Regional Hospital is using the oldest operational hospital in Canada as a model for “Patient Centred Care” – CBC story
St. Micheal’s Hospital in the middle of Toronto was built in 1892. Upgraded in 1912 and again in the 1960’s. The Queen Elizabeth II in Halifax was built in 1903 and is in the city. The Shriners Hospitals for Children in Boston was built in 1922 and is in the city. All these hospitals have two things in common. They are all older than the Saint John General, they are in the city and surrounding these hospitals is a vital dynamic economic system. Once the Saint John General was closed the Waterloo area known as the “Village” went into a slow steady decline that we have yet to recover from.
The Lily Lake Pavilion: The Council of the day was prepared to demolish the Lilly lake Pavilion based on the advise of City Management. The structure had been so poorly maintained by the city that it was deemed unsafe and un-salvageable. Independent structural engineers challenged and proved the city’s positioned to be flawed. Had it not been for vision and determination by the people of Saint John the structure would have seen the wrecking ball.
That takes us to the more recent North of Union decision: We can thank former Deputy Mayor Hooton for blowing the whistle on the plans for this area. At the time City Management and Common Council’s plans was to level “every building” in the area to make way for the Justice Complex and Police Headquarters. Once the cat was out of the bag City Management hastily called for “public consultation” The fact that a consultants 2001 report placed the North of Union site 9th out of 14 locations for a new police station seemed immaterial and held no relevance. The fact that renowned urban development expert Roberta Brandes Gratz considered the proposal for a police headquarters at Peel Plaza as not fitting and seriously flawed didn’t seem to make any difference, and the fact that the majority of folks attending the three public consultation session didn’t want the Police Headquarters on Union Street also didn’t make any difference. We had a City Management and some members of Common Council that saw the project as a catalyst for urban renewal and development in the area.
How did that crystal ball work out? Has anyone taken a close look at Union Street lately? Empty store fronts, buildings for sale. have we become so desperate for development that we will grasp at anything with short term benefit without factoring in possible long term consequences of those decisions? I’m I the only one that is hard pressed to see why a developer hasn’t been eager to build condos or apartments beside a Justice Complex and Police Station? During a conversation with well known architect John Leroux a few years ago I suggested that decades later Saint John would recognize that the Peel Plaza Police Headquarters in it’s current location was a mistake. Without hesitation he replied; ” It won’t take several decades”.
Moving right along – LNG: I won’t spend a lot of time on this one. The price of looking into Kenneth Irvings blue eyes is $7.5 million dollars in lost tax revenue to the City over the next 20 years.
Then we have City Management’s recommendation to Common Council to demolish the Reversing Falls Tourist Bureau right in the middle of tourist season. Forgive me, but how stupid was that decision? Did you know that tourism brings in approximately $500 million dollars a year to the Saint John area and the Reversing Falls is the number one attraction? It seems that it would cost the municipally-owned building, which had fallen into disrepair in recent years between $700,000 and $800,000 in upgrades, including plumbing, heating and air conditioning. The public came to the rescue again and the story went national. Earlier this year, Saint John businessman Max Kotlowski made a $1 million offer to invest private sector money into rebuilding and upgrading the iconic structure. Council pulled in it’s horns and agreed to a 60 year lease, another Saint John treasure saved.
That brings me to the “yet to be decided category The Crossing proposed by the Northrup Group : Turner Drake and Partners carried out an extensive survey of commercial properties in Saint John and other cities in 2014. The overall commercial vacancies rates by location are as follows: Greater Fredericton 10.03%; Greater Saint John 22.40%; Greater Moncton 7.89%; Greater St. John’s 4.81%; Halifax Regional Municipality 12.28%; Greater Charlottetown 10.41% During the survey they identified Saint John as having 2.5 million sq ft of rent-able commercial space. A little math if you will – 2.5 million times 22% reveals that Saint John currently has 500,000 sq ft of vacant commercial space. Add the 500,000 sq ft for The Crossing, with that pushes commercial vacancies to 1,000,000 sq ft. of vacant commercial space in Saint John? How long can a property continue to pay heat, up keep and taxes on an empty or significantly under utilized building?
Can we learn anything from our neigbours to the south that got carried away with commercial development. “Vacant and abandoned properties have negative spillover effects that impact neighboring properties and, when concentrated, entire communities and even cities. Research links foreclosed, vacant, and abandoned properties with reduced property values, increased crime, increased risk to public health and welfare, and increased costs for municipal governments”. (source U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)
As you can see from the attached chart the highest commercial vacancy rates in the US are still significantly lower than the nearly 30% vacancy we might experience in Saint John, should The Crossing become a reality.
Is Common Council and City Management, yet again, about to “decide in haste” on our behalf only to have us “repent at leisure” while we reflect on the consequences?