Nfld. & Labrador·Point/Counterpoint

Will a sky-high hotel wreck downtown St. John's?

Danny Breen and Sheilagh O'Leary have different views about a downtown proposal.

City's mayor and deputy mayor have different positions on proposed design

Sheilagh O'Leary, left, is the deputy mayor of St. John's. Danny Breen, right, is the city's mayor. (CBC)

It seems impossible to build or renovate in downtown St. John's without causing some kind of fuss.

This time, it's a proposal by Sonco Group Inc. to add a hotel to the top of the Atlantic Place parking garage. City council already voted 7-3 in favour of a resolution that opens the door to changing existing regulations, and allowing the structure to reach 12 storeys.

To hear from both sides of the divide in the council chamber, we asked Mayor Danny Breen and Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary to answer five questions about the proposal and development in downtown St. John's.

Question 1. What's your position on the proposed hotel for Atlantic Place?

Danny Breen

We have an obligation to consider each application with an open mind. I am open to considering this application further and gathering the information necessary, including a view plane analysis, which will then be presented at a public hearing.

A view of a render of the proposal hotel expansion from the vantage of Water Street. (Submitted by Marco)

The design presented was preliminary, and the developer has indicated they are flexible on the design as well as on adding retail space on the Harbour Drive level. This proposal also presents an opportunity to improve the facade of the parking garage, which has been an eyesore for decades.

Sheilagh O'Leary

I am not supportive of the proposed hotel and its increased elevation, for several reasons.

The City of St. John's has identified and works toward protection and enhancement of our invaluable heritage district in the downtown east end. In recent years, council made a concerted effort to encourage commercial building height in the west end, and we have seen this successfully manifest with buildings such as Fortis. 

As arguably North America's oldest city, St. John's' historic district makes us a desirable international tourism destination and is embedded in our unique cultural history as livyers who choose to make this city our home.

The proposed building only adds to the already existing, unwelcoming and unattractive wall that presents to residents and visitors on our Harbourfront.

The proposed mass is out of scale, and while the Atlantic Place Parking Garage is removed from the Heritage Area 1 designation to accommodate parking needs, it is embedded in our most precious heritage district. I firmly believe that heritage is a changing, living aspect of our city and I can appreciate efforts to make architecturally interesting designs. However, this is not the solution for this area. Aesthetically, this is contextually the wrong place for such experimentation.

We need to consider what our biggest assets are and build upon them.- Sheilagh O'Leary

In 2014, the council of the day approved and adopted a spot zone for Atlantic Place Parking Garage Zone (previously Commercial Central Retail), in an effort to protect parking needs in the downtown core. We now know that the parking needs have shifted, with 200-plus spaces available in Atlantic Place. Since this time, we have also entered into public/ private parking arrangements with both the parking garage at 351 Water St. and Metropark parking garage at 330 Duckworth St., which also provides more parking opportunities. These cost-shared parking garages also have space available.

Parking strategy is a compound problem and parking requirements are evolving. This does not even take into account efforts we are making to improve transportation through affordable, accessible transit and the potential for implementing Park and Ride scenarios, as well as other alternative methods.

Question 2. What's at stake in this proposal?

Danny Breen

This is a significant application and financial investment in our city. Not considering it would give the wrong impression to investors looking to invest in our city. As well, our downtown has been going through a difficult time and a significant capital investment that improves it would be a positive step toward a downtown revitalization.

The owners of the Atlantic Place parking garage have proposed building a new hotel on top of the existing structure. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Sheilagh O'Leary

If this proposal were to proceed, there would be a substantial loss to our historic significance and it would amplify the blocked wall face that detracts rather than enhances our downtown harbourfront. Certainly it would be a lovely feature for a select clientele. However, the public — whether local or visiting — would lose.

We need to consider what our biggest assets are and build upon them. Atlantic Place is definitely not that. The zone should be changed to enable the property owner to pursue an adaptive reuse of the existing garage that could marry parking and further development within its existing height. View planes, historic significance, changing parking needs and well-suited economic development that sets us apart from all other cities are key factors to consider.

Question 3. Why is there always tension when there are plans for development in downtown St. John's?

Sheilagh O'Leary

Tension arises from the desire to be like other growing cities, and for a desire for badly needed economic development. The problem with this is that the City of St. John's is actually sought after because of its heritage assets including beautiful landscapes, friendly people and most evidently, its unique history. It's a double-edged sword.

Guaranteed, newcomers — whether individuals or business — are not coming to invest because of the weather and when people choose to live here by birth it choice, it's because of that quality of living, its cultural and heritage assets and the openness of the people. We can be smarter about harnessing this economic development potential by not wanting to look like other cities and by placing value on what actually sets us apart.

Danny Breen

I believe we battle the memory of some poor development decisions in the past, the most notable of which is Atlantic Place. That has made us reluctant to consider any developments in the downtown. We need to change our mindset and work at maintaining and enhancing our unique heritage buildings, while at the same time introducing modern buildings by working with developers in an open, honest and fair manner.

Question 4. What have you heard from constituents?

Sheilagh O'Leary

I hear loud and clear from constituents on a regular basis, as I did when Fortis first proposed a tower in the east end, that such height and modern structures would be a tragic step. It would detract from the downtown and its livability and would contravene our existing height restrictions. Unfortunately, past mistakes have been made, including the striking unattractiveness and intrusion that is Atlantic Place and its parking garage. I certainly hear that the small heritage district that is designated and left downtown should be protected and enhanced.

If we are to grow, and if the downtown is to prosper, we need more people living and working there.- Danny Breen

In the words of one resident: "While some do not like the the fact that the Alt Hotel has filled in a formerly vacant space, it does not obstruct residential views. In contrast, the proposed hotel on the Atlantic Place Parking Garage seems almost to have been designed to destroy views."

Danny Breen

I have heard both sides of this issue and there are some very strong views both for and against. I have heard that we must protect the unique character and heritage of St. John's, that we cannot turn investment away from our city and that we must find the right combination to enhance our heritage and rejuvenate our downtown. These views can best be expressed during the public review process, as well as through a review by the Built Heritage Experts Panel.

Question 5. Describe the skyline of St. John's around the harbour in 20 years

Sheilagh O'Leary

This is an interesting question because it all depends upon the will of our present and future elected council representatives. I believe that the downtown can continue to be developed and enhanced through adaptive reuse of existing buildings, through opening up more interconnectivity of laneways and interesting streetscapes, and through planning to highlight and exemplify the historic assets that we are so blessed to have. 

The owners of the Atlantic Place parking garage is looking for permission from the St. John's City council to go beyond the 11-storey maximum in the downtown core and add a hotel to the top of the building, making it 12 storeys. (Submitted by Marco)

It is my hope that we can protect areas ranging from the Battery to the east end downtown core by adhering to the four-storey height restriction and encouraging taller commercial development to go to the west end, as in recent efforts. There is, architecturally and historically, a small and beautiful bowl that can and should be preserved and improved upon. This question can only be answered by the will of the people. Their choice as to whom the designers of our downtown will be will forever more impact the very heart and history of our existence in St. John's.

Danny Breen

I don't believe the skyline of St. John's will be dominated by tall buildings. I think you will see an increase in modern buildings of the same scale as what is there now, mixed with lower-rise buildings. If we are to grow, and if the downtown is to prosper, we need more people living and working there. This can be achieved through open and honest discussions with builders and developers, and engagement with the public. 

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