Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

St. John's is building walls across what brought us here in the first place

In a Point of View column for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, Louise Moyes argues that views of St. John's harbour have been a compelling reason for people to settle nearby.
Contributor Louise Moyes, who has been a resident of downtown St. John's for more than 40 years, says new and proposed development views are 'cutting citizens off from the very thing that brought our ancestors and Indigenous peoples before them.' (Submitted by Louise Moyes)

There is a beautiful watercolour, drawn in the mid-1800s, of a young woman and a young man, together on a hill, gazing out over the beautiful harbour and the Narrows of St. John's. A perfect view of a breathtaking place.

That hill is right behind our house, in Tessier Park.

We often see Jean-Claude Roy, Peter Lewis and other artists, painting the panoramic view. People have been coming to this spot for centuries to gaze, chat, hang out, and breathe in our historic town.

A watercolour painted in the late 19th century from the Long's Hill neighbourhood where Moyes and her family now live. She argues that views of St. John's harbour have been a compelling reason for people to settle nearby. (Public domain)

I grew up in Wedgewood Park. No ocean views there — but at the time in the '70s, there were lots of woods and brooks all around. We loved that part of Newfoundland nature, with all its fun games for kids: catching frogs, making forts, hide and seek.

In 1976 my parents bought a house downtown, a house with a stunning view, right through the Narrows. Living downtown took a while to get used to, and we grew to love it. But that view. It anchored us, in our move to the city and Bishop Feild School. The elegant historic Newfoundland Hotel was right next door.

Their parking lot was behind our house, between us and that view of sunrises and boats, fog and storms.

And then it was announced that in the name of progress, the hotel was to be knocked down and a much larger hotel, now the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland, was to be built. Petitions were made and signatures were gathered. The house had had the view for 100 years. The neighbourhood for hundreds. No matter.

Our family had five years living with that view.

The 'white wall'

It hurt to watch the wrecking ball take down the old and the cranes put up the new, the view disappearing bit by bit, now reserved for visitors and brunchers. A white wall between us. I have lived in many spots in St. John's since.

For the past 10 years I have lived on Long's Hill, with some of the best views in town.

Surprising long gardens behind our narrow row houses. The whole harbour before you. We sometimes joke it's "St. John's on the Riviera" — or that we don't need a "bay house" (much as we love our time around the bay), because we have the best of both worlds. And how lucky we are.

But because of where we live, we are painfully aware of this wall that's being erected, one building at a time.

But there has been a lengthy wall going up between us and even our incredible view. Slowly. Quietly. First it was the old Newfoundland Telephone building on Duckworth Street, now the Mix apartment development. Where we could see a large stretch of water between the gargantuan Atlantic Place and Scotiabank buildings, above the telephone building. Without us realizing, three floors were added. That water view was eliminated.

Then, between us and the now Mix building, the Star of the Sea Residences started — and sprawled past Scotiabank. Far beyond the footprint of the original old building, where I'd been for many great concerts and late-night dances. Not huge, but more view gone.

Moyes says her view of downtown St. John's is being eaten up by developments like the Star of the Sea apartment complex on Henry Street, at right, and the pending four-storey hotel on top of the Atlantic Place garage, at left. (Submitted by Louise Moyes)

'Based on that view'

Then, Sonco Group's Park Hotel project came to town. Well, it's been around for a while, as the company has been attempting to get approvals for a few years. Their goal: to put an extra four floors on top of the Atlantic Place Parking Garage. 12 floors in total, one more than the limit in that location.

I won't go in to the ins and outs of why heritage height and design laws were reneged for Atlantic Place and the garage. Others are more qualified to speak to that. I will say that when I walk on that block, I'll go on the opposite side and hurry through, past the ugliness of Atlantic Place and the huge shadow and wind tunnel (as if we need that) it creates.

I won't talk here about the esthetics of Sonco's Park Hotel design. Or whether we need another hotel.

I will talk about the developer's bold statement last week on CBC Radio's On The Go: "We don't think we're getting rid of any significant views and we think we're going to create a beautiful building that's going to be a sort of integral part of the city in the future."

My friend Ann lives in one of the Star of the Sea Building units. She moved in a few months ago, unaware of the Park Hotel proposal. The right-hand side of the image below is a professional artist's rendering of what the hotel would do to her view: completely obliterate it.

Ann moved in and people are renting (and the owners promoting) apartments in that building in large part based on that view.

The city does not protect private views. But many views, like ours, are not only private.

Ann Connors created this side-by-side image to demonstrate how her view of the St. John's harbour area will be blocked when a new hotel is built on top of the Atlantic Place Parking Garage. (Submitted by Ann Connors)

A tight 6-5 vote

The two recent Sonco votes, public consultation and report writing on this project have happened around Snowmageddon in January, and the COVID-19 lockdown that started in March, when people were preoccupied with food, their mortgages, their jobs, their families and friends.

The vote was a tight 6 to 5. Mayor Danny Breen and councillors Hickman, Stapleton, Hanlon, Korab, and Collins voted for. Almost none of them live in downtown.

If the final stage, for the air rights (the air rights!) over Baird's Cove is approved, this wall, cutting citizens off from the very thing that has brought people here for centuries — the sea — will make a great leap to the east of Atlantic Place.

The developer's renderings show the hotel only from the ground level, across the street from it. It looks somewhat more innocuous there.

But because of where we live, we are painfully aware of this wall that's being erected, one building at a time. And that this wall, and especially the Sonco hotel, will be a huge barrier from many angles.

I forgive Ann for living in the Star of the Sea. We've joined up to start an online petition and believe council should give the people of St. John's a chance to engage more fully with this project and where our city is going. We picked up 2,750 signatures in 48 hours, and hundreds of comments tell us that our fellow citizens agree.


Rebuttal 

In responding to Louise Moyes's column, the City of St. John's says its public consultation process on the Sonco application started in November, before Snowmageddon. In a statement to CBC News, the city said: 

"The initial public meeting was held on Dec. 11, 2019, and was advertised in the Telegram on Nov. 23, Nov. 30 and Dec. 7, 2019. A public notice was published on the city's website (on Nov 22, 2019) and emailed to residents that are signed up for (public notice) e-updates. Via the city's e-update, the email was distributed to 1,444 recipients. It was also posted on the city's Calendar of Events

"The public hearing was held on March 11, 2020, and was advertised for written comments in the Telegram on Feb. 22 and March 7, 2020. A public notice was published on the city's website (on Feb 21, 2020) and emailed to residents that are signed up for (public notice) e-updates. Via the city's e-update, it was distributed to 2,082 recipients. It was also posted on the city's Calendar of Events."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Louise Moyes is a dancer and filmmaker who lives in downtown St. John's.