New Brunswick

As Saint John enjoys a hip moment, its old peninsula awaits action

What's going on with the long-awaited neighbourhood plan for Saint John's South Central Peninsula?

In 2017, thousands of Saint Johners offered input on a neighbourhood plan. What's next?

In the coming months, Saint John will be putting out the Central Peninsula Neighbourhood Plan. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

The central peninsula of Saint John is having a hip moment: witness the proliferation of cool bars, coffee shops, and renovations of long-vacant properties. But curb appeal doesn't necessarily translate into long-term economic and social gains.

For that, the city needs a plan.

The as-yet-incomplete Central Peninsula Neighbourhood Plan, announced by the city in 2017, is a massive undertaking intended to address issues ranging from vacant buildings to arts and culture investment to poverty and other social issues.

It's been at least 12 months in the making, involving many hundreds of hours of workshops, strategy sessions and public engagement meetings — and it's going to take even longer to put it in place, according to Jeff Cyr, senior planner of Growth and Community Development Services with the City of Saint John.

18-month commitment  

A call last winter to fill nine citizen vacancies on the team resulted in 85 applications from "residents of the uptown peninsula and stakeholders that live outside the peninsula," Cyr said.

The team, which meets monthly, consists of chair Kay Gillis, vice-chair Melissa Wakefield and a cross-section of citizens ranging from small business owners to community activists and grad students: Anne McShane, Jeff Roach, Ben Appleby, Andrew Miller and Milad Pirayegar. Gerry Lowe and Donna Reardon are the city council representatives.

People uptown, in the south end and in Waterloo Village have been asked to share their ideas. (City of Saint John)

Retaining that many people for the required 18-month term is a challenge. Of the nine vacancies originally advertised, one team member had to be replaced because of a change in circumstances, Cyr said. Another team member, Lauchlan Ough, is now living abroad.

The planning process has also involved three community engagement events — big workshops where people could submit their ideas in writing and in person — held in May, July, November.

They "engaged well over 1,500 to 2,000 people, [and gained] somewhere between 2,000 to 2,500 individual comments from citizens," Cyr said.

Three public engagement sessions for the South Central Neighbourhood Plan have drawn combined crowds in the thousands this year. (Submitted by Jeff Cyr)

Draft in the works

That's a lot of people, and a lot of feedback to wrangle.

"Saint John has a lot of problems in a lot of circles: generational poverty, child poverty, the issues of density loss in the uptown, vacant buildings, underutilized public spaces," said architect Melissa Wakefield. "From a city planning perspective, it's very complex — but that's why the city is such an interesting test bed for this process.

Committee members including Andrew Miller, pictured, chat with members of the public at an engagement session in November. The idea behind the plan, said Jeff Cyr, is to engage Saint Johners who might usually be blasé. (Submitted by Jeff Cyr)

"A lot of eyes are on Saint John as to what comes out of it, and how we tackle these complex issues."

All that feedback, Cyr said, has resulted in a "really a wide-reaching list of ideas" on what to do in the neighbourhood. "It's a pretty substantial number of actions, initiatives, policies and recommendations included in the plan."

Weeding through all the suggestions, and coordinating priorities among the team members, is a time-consuming endeavour.

"Right now we've got the direction, and we're working with the action team on trying to prioritize how it should be implemented," Cyr said.

Milad Pirayegar, a PhD student in urban studies at UNB Saint John, applied to sit on the team after moving to the city from northern Iran in 2015. 

He said the lengthy drafting process is a good thing.

"Every urban project can't be a short-term project," he said. "When we are working on a plan, it isn't just work three or four months and then release a conclusion for 20 years. It's a really difficult process, because a city is an interdisciplinary phenomena: it includes citizens, stakeholders, tourists, and other target groups."

A 'different' situation

The next step will be for the team to recommend a draft, which Cyr said will be released to the public "in the near future."

From there, it will need to be approved by the planning advisory committee, city council and the heritage board.

As an architect, Wakefield said, she's excited about potential changes to the city's heritage bylaws, which some developers consider too restrictive. 

Saint John has one of the largest heritage preservation areas in Canada — but some people think the bylaws are too restrictive. Architect Melissa Wakefield said the neighbourhood plan, when complete, will address some of those concerns. (Courtesy of City of Saint John)

"My biggest hope is that we have a much more flexible infill standard. Right now, it's quite … limiting. For someone with a heritage home, that's seen as quite a roadblock."

Pirayegar hopes regular Saint Johners — including those ​blasé about the whole concept of civic engagement — will get involved once the plan is unveiled. 

Saint John has a lot of problems in a lot of circles: generational poverty, child poverty, the issues of density loss in the uptown, vacant buildings, underutilized public spaces. From a city planning perspective, it's very complex — but that's why the city is such an interesting test bed for this process.- Melissa Wakefield , architect

Pirayegar said he finds Saint John different from other cities.

"People in New Brunswick are sometimes different from other provinces," he said.

"They are really, really nice and they would like to do something for their city and their province. When you ask someone to help you regarding an issue in the city, they would like to do their best."

As for when the nice people of the city will be able to read the plan and see for themselves how it will — or won't — positively affect their lives, they'll need to be patient.

While the plan is "well underway and nearing the point of adoption this year, we don't have a final date yet," Cyr said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is a born-and-raised Saint Johner, reporter, photographer, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

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