Nfld. & Labrador

Is there a better way to solve development debates in St. John's? This group thinks so

Numerous proposals in downtown St. John's have sparked friction, although, as Bailey White writes, what happened after the Parish Lane fracas sets this development apart from the others.

Help from the neighbourhood has made Parish Lane a better project, builder says

Jen Crowe of Happy City St. John's is pleased that people with different perspectives had a chance to work together on a new concept for the Parish Lane condo project. (Stephen Miller/CBC)

The public meeting went the way so many others before and since had gone.

Developers and neighbours, brought together by the City of St. John's to discuss plans for a new building complex, found themselves on opposite sides of a heated debate around what the planned project should like, or if it should even be built.

"There was, I would say, a plethora of concerns that were raised coming out of that town hall," said Jen Crowe of Happy City St. John's, recalling the November meeting.

It had been about the Parish Lane condominium proposal, but it just as easily could have been about a handful of others.

This image shows the new concept for the Parish Lane development in downtown St. John's. (Submitted by Richard Pardy )

In the past 18 months, similar divides emerged over plans for a hotel atop Atlantic Place, the expansion of the Jag Hotel, a proposed condo building next to the National War Memorial and an addition to the Anglican Cathedral.

But what happened after the Parish Lane fracas sets this development apart from the others.

Non-profit groups and the company behind the project got together to find a new way to engage with neighbours.

The result, organizers say, is a model that could be carried forward for other contentious builds.

Angry neighbours

More than 100 people attended that meeting to learn about and weigh in on the Parish Lane project, which is to consist of two buildings between Harvey Road and Queen's Road. "There was a lot of pushback from a number of quarters at the public meeting," said Richard Pardy, CEO of Parish Lane Development.

Among the concerns: that the complex would obstruct the view of the Narrows from The Rooms; that it would eliminate natural green space behind houses on Garrison Hill; and that the design would clash with existing features in the "ecclestiastical district" — a neighbourhood with several historically significant churches.

"One of the attendees actually reached out to Happy City St. John's to say, 'Is there an opportunity for you to step in and to help with … perhaps a more productive way forward?'" Crowe said.

Happy City, a non-profit devoted to encouraging public dialogue on civil issues, brought the idea to the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and to Parish Lane Development, the company behind the project.

"We decided that the best long-term interest of the project would be to listen to what many of the stakeholders were saying," Pardy said.

Together, the trio established a survey, a focus group and what's called a "design charrette" — an all-day, in-person session attended by neighbours and architects, who worked together on a new concept for the condo project.

Yes in my backyard

The engagement process informed a revamped proposal from Parish Lane Development.

In the new design, the larger of the two buildings has been rotated 90 degrees so that its narrow side faces The Rooms. The building is set farther away from the homes on Garrison Hill, preserving more of the greenspace neighbours value.

The smaller building, which was originally conceived as a 14-unit apartment complex, has been turned into three townhouses. Pardy says they fit better with the architecture on Queen's Road, and even incorporate some features of the original structures built there.

The green space between Harvey Road and Queen's Road is the site of the Parish Lane project. (Alex Kennedy/CBC)

"You can't take every recommendation," Pardy said, "but at the end of the day, we actually think the key recommendations have actually made it a much better project."

Jerry Dick, executive director of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, said he and other interested parties are willing to compromise.

"So often it seems like it's kind of an adversarial approach," he said of the city's current approach to building approvals. "The developer over here, the public on the other side, and the city stuck somewhere in between. And I don't think that has to be the case."

Crowe, Dick and Pardy all agree the process they used to engage with the public could be useful to other developers, and encouraged the City of St. John's to consider adopting a similar approach.

The city wouldn't comment on specifics, however. Maggie Burton, city council's lead on the project, said it would be premature to weigh in because she has not reviewed the revised submission.

The original proposal was met with opposition from people who lived in the neighbourhood. (Parish Lane Developments)

Working with the community is good for business, Pardy said. In order for housing developments to succeed, people have to support them and want to live in them.

Pardy said hearing from the neighbours was helpful in "both being a good neighbour and also developing a product that the market will accept."

Adding such an in-depth consultation process to the list of things a developer needs to do before building could slow down projects, add costs and more red tape, but Dick said the benefits outweigh the costs.

"If the public is on board upfront, because they played a role in helping to shape it, hopefully it's going to go through planning processes more quickly," he said.

"That's something that every developer is looking for."

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