Plan for Woolworths property gets warm reception

Development

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on February 5, 2010

A new proposal for the former Woolworths property in downtown St. John's could bring radical changes to the west end of Water Street.

The 11-storey proposal still has a bunch of procedural hoops to jump through, but from the mood of a planning meeting that took place Thursday, East Port Properties Ltd.'s structure looks headed for approval.

A new proposal for the former Woolworths property in downtown St. John's could bring radical changes to the west end of Water Street.

The 11-storey proposal still has a bunch of procedural hoops to jump through, but from the mood of a planning meeting that took place Thursday, East Port Properties Ltd.'s structure looks headed for approval.

And once that's done, other developers chomping at the bit for site redevelopment between Steers Cove and Waldegrave Street can expect similar treatment.

Even heritage stalwart and Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff is gearing up to exempt the block from the city's heritage zone.

"If you got Shannie's OK, it's just as well to go to Chester Dawe's and get the lumber," Ward 5 Coun. Wally Collins was heard to say to the developers after the meeting.

Other than the rear of the Templeton's Building on Harbour Drive and perhaps a turreted building on Water Street, there is precious little heritage value on the block, councillors say.

East Port's pitch would also clean up what's considered a derelict eyesore.

The Woolworths redevelopment also comes with a major first - a public-private partnership to put more parking in the downtown.

East Port was asked by the city to add an extra four levels of public parking - or 280 spaces - from its original proposal last fall, which had only 200 spaces for its tenants.

The cost of entering that public-private partnership could be as high as $10 million for the city, Duff said following the meeting. But it would be recovered through the cost of not only parking there, but increased parking fees and fines in the downtown. There also could be cash-in-lieu payouts to the city by other developers unable to include parking in their proposals.

East Port president John Lindsay Jr. said all those details are yet to be worked out.

"There is a serious fiscal discussion to be had on both sides," Lindsay said after the meeting.

His company represents a pension fund, which also purchased the Scotia Centre building in the last year. East Port has managed and developed properties in metro since the 1970s.

Taking the block out of the heritage area would give council the discretion to approve buildings up to 10 storeys and 40 metres high. It would also treat "each and every developer in a fair and equitable basis," said planning committee chairman Frank Galgay, also councillor for Ward 2, which includes downtown.

"The site obviously has got very little heritage merit," Duff said of the block.

Lindsay said the building will feature some retail space, including a spot on the Harbour Drive side, where it's hoped a restaurant will locate.

The facade of the building has not been decided. But the structure will include an enclosed pedestrian access between Water Street and Harbour Drive so the public parking can be accessed 24 hours a day.

Architect Philip Pratt of the PHB Group Inc. said there's also potential in the future to put in pedways (also known as skywalks) to link to Mile One Centre through other buildings.

Redevelopment will provide "Class A" office space, Lindsay said.

"The project is about meeting the need in downtown - as opposed to other parts of the city - the requirement for increased office occupancy, driven primarily, but not entirely, by the success in the oil and gas industry," he said.

The planning committee will recommend to city council that it ask East Port to do a land use assessment report. It's also recommending a public meeting be held after that report is done and before council votes on the project.

It's also recommended to council that the block be removed from the heritage areas and be considered "bonus sites" for higher and bigger buildings.

Lindsay said it's hoped the construction will start this year.

"The actual construction schedule is going to depend on the construction techniques. Our intention is to get underway this year and to get it done as soon as humanly possible. We have people who want the desk space as soon as we are finished," he said.

The proposal may be palatable to the public.

Downtown businesswoman Peg Norman wasn't at the planning meeting, but she said the Woolworths redevelopment plan seems reasonable for that area. Norman is among the vocal public opposition to the proposal by Fortis several blocks east that would tear down some lower-rise older buildings.

Fortis, said Norman, is challenging the rules and has other alternatives than hauling down existing heritage properties.

Duff said the difference with the west end of Water Street, besides lack of heritage importance, is the closeness to Pitts Memorial Drive, taking traffic away from narrow streets of the central and east parts of downtown.

The Fortis proposal is likely to be a hot topic at Smart Growth in Downtown, a discussion on planning and development set for Monday night at City Hall.

bsweet@thetelegram.com