What Makes City Councilors Tick?

Do they follow a plan, or do they make decisions on a piecemeal basis?

Article By Cory Thorne, VP of NL Historic Trust

What makes city councilors tick? How do they inform themselves about the many diverse issues that are part of municipal planning? Do they read and consult scientific studies and expert’s reports? Do they embrace public consultations in an attempt to build consensus through informed debate? Do they follow a plan, or do they make decisions on a piecemeal basis?

According to one Facebook commenter: “You may as well save a few salaries and replace the city planning office with some lovely wind-chimes.”

As noted by a variety of concerned residents, our current council appears to have no vision and little support for any planning process. In recent letters to The Telegram, we see Maggie Burton questioning why our municipal plan is nearly 3 years late (May 25). We have Mayor O’Keefe’s response (May 29): We’re working on it, but it’s really hard and too many citizens are on vacation in the summer… (no, I don’t get his logic).

We see Tom Horrocks, of the Canadian Institute of Planners, arguing that O’Keefe has failed to respect the public engagement or planning processes, and has stalled the process into submission (June 6). No matter how you cut it, planning is not on the agenda.

While it appears that few councilors take interest in this information, our council has used our tax dollars to create quite a few documents that should be on every City hall desk. I would suggest that all prospective councilors take some time to read them.

Before commenting on the proposed bulldozing of Penny Crescent wetlands, read the city’s 1993 report on Significant Waterways and Wetlands, and the 2017 Land Use Assessment Report, and then compare them to some foundational texts on the value of wetlands in relation to water retention, urban flooding, wildlife and long-term sustainability, as well as studies on suburban planning and community development, and the proposal is less and less appealing.

Before consolidating lots to allow a mansion to be built above Quidi Vidi Village, have a look at the 2015 QVV Overlay Zone and Design Guidelines, the 2006 QVV Development Plan, or the discussion of viewscapes in the 2003 St. John’s Heritage Areas Report. We paid for the studies, why not have a look at them?

While it is easy to dismiss our history and assume that heritage protections cost more than we can afford, we can turn to a plethora of studies that argue for the ways in which smart urban planning (which includes heritage protections) results not only in improved quality of life, but also in greater economic development (through increased property values, promotion of mixed-income neighbourhoods, increased tourism, reduced construction waste, increased employment, greater attention to locality and retention of profits within the community).

There are many academic studies that support these arguments, and several funded by the city that address it locally, including the aforementioned 2003 StJ Heritage Areas, Heritage Buildings and Public Views Report, and the 2001 Downtown StJ Strategy for Economic Development and Heritage Preservation.

Bring in some of the information gathered by Happy City, or some of Emily Campbell’s articles here in The Overcast, and, well, you’ll have experts’ opinions from both local and global perspectives – all pushing for the need to plan, to give greater attention to traditional forms of design, and greater attention to heritage as a key to economic development and community sustainability.

The laissez faire nature of this council was most strongly demonstrated to us during a council meeting on May 23rd.  Following a vote on the demolitions of Richmond Cottage and the former Belvedere Orphanage (one a story of greed, the other of tragedy), Dave Lane stood up and said “This can’t happen again.”

Unbeknownst to almost everyone (except presumably Art Puddister, as Chair of the Planning Committee, and Jason Sinyard, Director of Planning), the Pratt House had just been demolished. Because of a lack of process, neither was required to forward the application for demolition to council, or the Built Heritage Experts Panel. Not even the councilors got a voice in that one, let alone the experts.

Now that we have lost Quinnipiac, Richmond Cottage, Pratt House, Belvedere, the Salvation Army buildings … now that we expect to lose Waterford Manor and many others that are not even documented or even on our radar, and now that we are included on a list that no city wishes to be part of (the National Trust’s Top 10 Endangered Places 2017 – for Bryn Mawr Cottage), I ask all voters to download and closely study one more document, 2013 Oath of Affirmation of Campaign Contributions and Expenses Disclosure, a list of campaign contributions to candidates in our last election.

So what do you think makes our councilors tick? Which of these documents should have the greatest influence on the future of our city?

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  • Another example of Dave Lane just trying but getting nowhere with heritage protection. Simply not good enough. About as effective as all the bike lanes the City put in and never annually kept up annually afterward. Bring on election 2017. No one existing on council has a valid argument to be kept on.

  • Excellent article and a completely accurate portrayal of Council’s attitude towards planning. It is precisely because of Council’s long history of ignoring plans and sidelining the planning process that I am pretty sure that the draft Envision Municipal Plan, developed after a lengthy and fairly well done consultation process in 2011, will likely be ignored and irrelevant like previous Municipal Plans have been. That’s because it is only through the accompanying Development Regulations that good development is encouraged and bad development (such as on wetlands or through demolition of heritage structures) is prohibited. We’ve waited years, and Council has failed to make good Development Regulations a priority. Finally, they release the still “draft” Development Regulations this summer, and they are hardly any different than the old ones. The draft Development Regulations will do absolutely nothing to encourage the kind of development that was supported by the public consultations for the Envision Plan, and they will do nothing to prevent the kind of bad development that people are fed up with – car-dependent suburban sprawl where there are few if any amenities within walking distance, where applications to fill in wetlands cannot be rejected, where one heritage building after another is razed to the ground. Members of Council I have spoken to don’t even know the first thing about the Development Regulations, or what alternatives there might be. This is a sad situation.

  • Great piece Cory! How so many amendments and exceptions are entertained, especially in the case of Quidi Vidi where the overlay plan is still warm from the printer, is astounding. Planning is falling by the wayside and development is becoming purely political. The planning department is shrinking (in numbers and planning expertise) and no councillors are keeping the conversation (that is two-way interaction) going about improving and enacting upon the new municipal plan. Planning literacy is severely lacking in the city and in council. Luckily there are a few outspoken advocates and some momentum building within local groups to change this – hopefully before we commit ourselves to a stale proposal for the next 20 years.

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