Nfld. & Labrador

Empty edifices: What can St. John's do about vacant buildings?

Two big-box closures in St. John's have compounded the problems that St. John's is having with vacant buildings that are doing little for neighbourhoods, writes Adam Walsh.
The Future Shop store in the Stavanger Driver area of St. John's closed abruptly at the end of March, as did the rest of the chain. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

First, Target announced it missed the mark. Then Future Shop pulled the plug. 

Those two Canada-wide closures left two more empty buildings — and huge ones at that — in St. John's.

Coun. Tom Hann said more communications infrastructure is needed in St. John's to meet consumer demand. (CBC)

Already on the city's tally of empty edifices are three former Loblaw supermarkets and a recently vacated Canadian Tire building on Elizabeth Avenue.

Big vacant spaces, all collecting dust and offering nothing to their local neighborhoods. As for a plan to fill them, the city can help with rezoning … but that's about it.

"The city doesn't have the authority to go into the owners of this building and order them to put something there," said Coun. Tom Hann, who chairs the city's planning and development committee.

"That's free enterprise and that's a marketing system where they go out and find the tenants to put in the buildings that they own."

What the city does do is make sure properties are maintained and kept up to the city's safety standards.

New city plan on horizon

When the new city plan comes in to effect — scheduled for later this month — there will be more emphasis placed on rezoning certain buildings to meet the city's density aspirations.

Loblaw closed three of its supermarkets in St. John's in recent years, including this space on Newfoundland Drive. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"We are hoping to probably zone them under the new regulations to say look here's a place you can put a six-to-10 storey or whatever apartment complex or condo building," said Hann.

Hann says one building already identified for possible rezoning is the former Dominion supermarket at the intersection of Torbay Road and Newfoundland Drive.

Long time Newfoundland Drive resident Gord King has a long list of what he doesn't what in the space.

"Nothing like a bowling alley, nothing like a fast-food takeout, nothing that would create so much traffic as you can see going by there now that we cannot get out of our parking lot that takes 10 minutes," said King.

As for Hann's condo suggestion, King likes it.

"It could be a condo, it could be something that the older neighbours here could live with without being waken in the night time without hearing the screeching tires."

Don't expect a big, quick fix

Local urban planner Mary Bishop says Halifax is already doing what St. John's hopes to do in terms of mixed developments.

"You're starting to see there things like coffee shops, small retail stores being developed in the downtown that are supported by the people that are living there within walking space to them and then people that are working there in offices," said Bishop.

If anyone's hoping for a quick fix to fill the new voids around town, retail industry consultant Bruce Winder at the J.C. Williams Group in Toronto says that may not be in the cards.

"Definitely you're going to see a bit of a gap here in the marketplace," he said.  "There isn't someone who's probably going to swoop in and take them all similar to what happened with Target a few years ago."

There eventually will need to be somebody. Without an interested developer, the buildings will just continue to sit idle. 


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He works primarily for the St. John's Morning Show, and contributes to television and digital programming.