Developer accuses St. John's city hall of withholding permits for expensive upgrades

A major developer in St. John's is accusing the city of putting expensive roadblocks in front of his projects — and he wants his money back.

After developer speaks to CBC News, city sends plans for crosswalk

Vic Lawlor, a developer in St. John's, says he paid $50,000 for this crosswalk to be upgraded three years ago. To date, no construction has taken place. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Standing in front of a crosswalk on Ropewalk Lane, Vic Lawlor breaks into laughter as people come and go across the street.

Four years ago, he was told to pay for a new crosswalk here or a KFC on his property would never get the proper permits to open.

Today, the restaurant is serving up the Colonel's secret recipe after Lawlor dropped $50,000 for a deposit on a crosswalk that was never built.

"I've asked for my $50,000 back because this crosswalk has never been built," he said. "And it's fallen on deaf ears from Mayor [Dennis] O'Keefe right on down to every councillor that's there."

Developer says he's targeted by city staff

Lawlor is the owner of Ropewalk Plaza, a strip mall across from a Sobey's grocery store and alongside a large bowling alley.

Since buying the property in 2014, the plaza has gone from 30 per cent occupancy to full capacity, he said.

But long before he bought the plaza, Lawlor butted heads with city staff on other properties.

Ropewalk Plaza is full now, three years after being purchased by developer Vic Lawlor. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

About a decade ago, brickwork done by a local mason was ordered to be torn down from one of his storefronts, he said, launching a dispute with city management.

After that, he added, permits were harder to come by.

"I think there's a system within the city that if you don't conform with the rest of the city inspectors, they'll turn on you," he said.

Lawlor, city reach crossroads over crosswalk

Shortly after he purchased the plaza, Franchise Management Incorporated began talks with Lawlor for land on Ropewalk Plaza.

The company intended to build a KFC.

Three months after reaching an agreement, Lawlor said the franchisee was going to pull out of the project because it could not get the necessary permits from the city.

Lawlor said he went to City Hall to sort out the matter, and spoke with several members of city staff.

"They said, 'Vic, if you want a permit for KFC, we want a crosswalk,'" he said. "And I said, 'That's legalized extortion,' and they said, 'Well, we wouldn't see it that way.'"

After a disagreement about who should pay for it, Lawlor gave in and paid the deposit.

Money won't be returned, but plans are completed, councillor says

According to Coun. Sandy Hickman, who chairs the city's traffic committee, plans have been made to install the crosswalk.

"Staff has reacted to his most recent concern and are working with him on that," Hickman said Friday afternoon.

"They are developing the drawings, and I've indeed seen the drawings, so I'm surprised that he wouldn't have had them."

St. John's Coun. Sandy Hickman denied Vic Lawlor's claims the city is unfair to some developers because of their reputation. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Hickman said it was the increased development on Lawlor's side of Ropewalk Lane that sparked the need for a new crosswalk with an overhead traffic light.

It's a constant fight.- Vic Lawlor

Since the crosswalk is closer to the Ropewalk Plaza entrance than Sobeys or the neighbouring Shell station, the cost is on Lawlor.

And despite there being no movement on construction, the city still views the crosswalk as a necessity.

"The city does insist this crosswalk be moved and brought up to standard for the safety of drivers and pedestrians," Hickman said. "We're expecting him to do the work now right away."

According to Lawlor, the crosswalk was quoted at $71,000 when the process began.

As for claims the city is unfair to Lawlor because of who he is, Hickman denied it.

"I don't even have a comment on that kind of thing," he said after shaking his head. "He has to deal with city staff on this issue the same as any developer would."

Crosswalk not the only concern at Ropewalk Plaza

After putting up the Burger King and KFC buildings, Lawlor said he was told he needed a new fire hydrant, despite there being hydrants directly across the street from each building.

After presenting several plans to the city, the job cost him $20,000. He said he spoke with firefighters who told him the extra hydrant was unnecessary.

This fire hydrant was installed after a Burger King was built on the property. The area developer says it cost him $20,000 for the infrastructure and construction. He says firefighters told him it was unnecessary. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

When he built Burger King, there was an issue with traffic flow going into the plaza.

He wanted to remove the Ropewalk Lane entrance all together, but the city declined his plans and made their own instead, Lawlor said.

"So I moved an entrance 30 feet for a quarter of a million dollars that still causes the same problems," he said.

Burger King was further held up by issues with lighting and lines in the parking lot.

After much delay, the restaurant opened without an occupancy permit, Lawlor said.

"I'm trying to make an area better," he said. "Everybody is happy except the city. And it's a constant fight."


Ryan Cooke is a multiplatform journalist with CBC News in St. John's. His work often takes a deeper look at social issues and the human impact of public policy. Originally from rural Newfoundland, he attended the University of Prince Edward Island and worked for newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada before joining CBC in 2016. He can be reached at