Gushue | St. John's, your future is looking up

Too many buildings spread too far apart has been the development style for decades, but it may finally be changing, John Gushue writes.

Density has to be a key ingredient for the capital city in the years to come

The new office tower under construction at 351 Water St. in downtown St. John's will have Husky Energy as its anchor tenant. (CBC)

Depending on the route I take home, I get an up-close view of a project that has ever-so-slowly been coming together, and one which will soon enough have a pretty serious impact on housing in St. John's.

Over the last few years, two new towers have been under construction at Memorial University's main campus, to house students near both Paton College and Burton's Pond.

When they're completed in the coming months, they will become home to 500 students. That means an increase by a third to the existing on-campus housing at Paton College, not to mention the fact that there will be 500 fewer people scouring the city and area for off-campus housing. That's not a small number.

While the towers are not conventional apartment buildings, they will play an important role in the city housing mix — and that's largely because there hasn't been much like them in quite a while.

In fact, the large-scale apartment complex had pretty much been absent from development in St. John's for a whole generation, with the last (as I recall) built in the late 1980s, on Blackmarsh Road.

Apartments have certainly been added to the metro area over that time, but often on an individual basis. Typically, they have been basement apartments that have come as part of single-home dwellings, most built in our ever-expanding suburbs.

There's nothing inherently wrong with suburbs, single homes, basement apartments, or any of these things. The problem is the bigger picture, and what's been missing.

The key word: density.

Unwise choices, we've had a few

Our development choices have, on the whole, not been the wisest. On the Northeast Avalon, neighbouring municipalities have been competing for new taxpayers, which has helped fuel an unprecedented burst in new subdivisions.

The new residences at Memorial University will be home to about 500 students. (CBC)

St. John's has hardly been leading by example. We have seen a proliferation of condominiums, particularly with downtown views and/or aimed at the senior market. [The Kenny's Pond neighbourhood alone has pretty much turned into the land of towering condos — accepting the St. John's standard that a tower is actually pretty squat, compared to larger cities.]

By and large, development has been more of the same, and we are not seeing what many city planners know is right: walkable neighbourhoods, a mix of housing styles with diverse incomes, improved access to public transportation, and a viable, thriving commercial base.

There are not many places that fit that bill. Instead, to live well in this city, you really need to have a car, and if you happen to need the bus, the chances of convenient and frequent service near you are probably not good. What's worse, many people just assume Metrobus is a broken system that will never be fixed.

The problems are not just on the housing side. For instance, I'm at a loss to explain why so many commercial developments do not go beyond a second storey. Just drive around the business and industrial parks, and take a look at the height of the buildings, including office space. You won't have to crane your neck very often.

Change is a-coming

That said, things are changing on several fronts, both for housing and commercial development. Let's start with the latter. Look at the Fortis Properties 12-storey tower going up now on New Gower Street, a part of the city that will look very different in a few years, if not months. We've not seen commercial construction like this in a generation, when the federal office tower known as John Cabot Place went up across from the Delta Hotel.

Fortis Inc., which ran into a wall over a plan to put a tower near Prescott Street, encountered almost no opposition to the development of this site off Springdale Street. (CBC )

What a wholly different response Fortis got to that proposal compared to its highly controversial plan to put a similar tower near its existing building at the corner of Prescott and Water, smack dab in the city's heritage zone.

The exercise showcased a number of things, including that we obsess too much about new development when we focus on that relatively small space right by the harbour. By being flexible, Fortis opened the door to development in other parts of the city core.

The city also softened its stand with height requirements, paving the way for the 11-storey tower (six of them actual offices) now under construction at 351 Water St., which has landed Husky Energy as its anchor tenant.

There's more to come in the neighbourhood. Last week, a public hearing got mixed reviews from neighbours about a 12-storey Hilton hotel planned for an oddly shaped strip of land on New Gower Street, just west of Springdale — and pretty close to its would-be competition, the Delta.

An eight-storey flatiron-style building has been proposed for a nearby lot, by Hamilton Avenue. Heading east, there's activity all over Duckworth Street, from the overhaul of my old haunt (the old CBC building) to plans to finally get going on the derelict old Newfoundland Telephone building across the street.

Downtown's western wedge

In other words, the skyline of the city, particularly that western wedge of the downtown, is going to look pretty different a few years from now.

But much of the activity involves condos, which is, to be fair, a partial reflection of where the market is. What it's not is a reflection of what the needs are.

We have complicated housing needs, and one of them is a dearth of housing that is affordable, located within walking distance of popular targets and matched with public transportation routes. (As Caroline Hillier reported on the St. John's Morning Show this week, this is a particular concern with new immigrants.)

We're in an election year, and I'm curious to see what role — if any — density will have as the candidates spell out their plans. I'll be the first to admit that density is not a politically sexy topic, but it is critical to how the city functions, and affects everything from public transit to the many millions of dollars we spend each year on keeping our roads intact. You don't need to be that creative to link our historic aversion to density to the car culture and then to obesity and fitness problems that have been escalating in our midst.

St. John's is not a big city, but it sure is spread out. With the metro area included, we cover 804 square kilometres, and we have a regional population just under 200,000.

Let's see if the municipal math will take a shift with some three-dimensional thinking, and a good hard look at why we're not building up more often.

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.