Public needs more say in downtown developments, says Historic Trust

A public meeting about the Jag Hotel's proposed expansion was called after a historic building was already demolished to make way for it. Now the trust is asking for more public consultation on downtown developments.

The trust says there should have been more public consultation before the demolition of historic building

Tyler Stapleton is on the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust's board of directors. (Paula Gale/CBC)

The actual dust has settled after the historic John Howard Society building was torn down this spring to make way for a hotel expansion in downtown St. John's, but the proverbial dust is still flying.

The City of St. John's held its first public consultation about the Jag Hotel development last week, but the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust says that should have happened well before the building came down.

The organization wants to see the city involve the public sooner in discussions about developments in the downtown core.

"You should have your public consultations first," said Tyler Stapleton, who sits on the board of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust.

"The city should be open and say, 'Look, we have a developer that wants to do this ... what would we like our city to look like?' instead of the other way around, with a developer coming and saying, 'Here's what your city is going to look like.'"

The proposed expansion of the Jag Hotel, at the west end of Water Street, includes a large performance theatre, a new building with more than 80 additional hotel rooms, and a pedway stretching across Buchanan Street.

In order for all that to happen, Steele Hotels, which owns the Jag Hotel, bought and demolished the John Howard Society building, which is more than 150 years old and was one of the first structures built in downtown St. John's, Stapleton said. 

This picture, from a presentation given to the City of St. John's by Gerald Penney Associates, shows the John Howard Society building at the corner of Water Street and Buchanan Street in 1899. (City of St. John's)

"We're not saying it has to be put back absolutely perfect just like it was 1850," he said. "We're saying that there is heritage quality, there is heritage character there. It could be reincorporated into a new building, into a new design that could have really stood out and been a gem of what's possible with architecture and heritage preservation in the city."

A spokesperson from the city said discussions about the building went to the built heritage experts panel and that it was not ultimately recommended for heritage designation.

Loss of the laneway

The city also sold Steele Hotels the airspace over Buchanan Street as well as the public laneway running parallel to it, connecting George Street and New Gower Street. 

That lane way is "centuries old," and its sale, which happened well before last week's meeting, means that public space is gone, Stapleton said.

"The main thing being is that the demolition of this building and the selling of that public lane could be completed without any input from the public whatsoever. And it really feels like ... everything already has happened, more or less, to make it ready for this new development."

This is one of the renderings of the Jag Hotel expansion submitted to the City of St. John's. (City of St. John's)

The trust sent a letter to the City of St. John's the day before the meeting voicing its concerns about the development and the lack of public input.

That same week, it also sent a letter about the Anglican Cathedral's controversial annex proposal, addressing both the design itself and what the trust felt was a short time period for the public to get to know the proposal before the call for comments.

"We're not complaining about development, period," Stapleton said.

"We want a better process that leads up to development, so we can ensure that developments in our city are sensitive and respectful."

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