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Cochrane Centre kitchen at centre of dilemma
St. John’s city council will make a decision in few weeks that will require it to balance the concerns of residents losing sleep, a small bakery trying to stay open during tough economic times and a non-profit group trying to support vulnerable people while preventing a heritage building from crumbling.
First, a brief history.
In an effort to keep the doors open, Cochrane Street United Church established a non-profit group, Cochrane Centre, and handed the church building over to it to be renovated roughly five years ago.
The renovation included community meeting rooms, a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and affordable housing units.
In 2018, First Light took over managing day-to-day operations of the centre.
All was well in the neighbourhood until the kitchen began to be rented by The Old Dublin Bakery, which used it at all hours of night in order to have fresh-baked goods to sell in the morning.
A fan on the exterior of the centre — related to the kitchen operations — caused “hell” for the residents who live nearby, said one resident of 37 years, Madeline Heffernan.
She said “there is no peace” when the fan is on.
“The ‘Snowmageddon’ gave us a break. As bad as that was, that fan is worse. And first when it came on, I’d be up all night long. And I’d be sick for two days after because it just throws my body right off completely. I’m not an all-night person. I mean, I’m 70 years old.”
Other neighbours, Chris and Kimberley Ringrose, said it took a year of calling in noise complaints about the loud fan before the hours of operation recently changed from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., within the city’s noise bylaw.
The Ringroses said they were living in their apartment for about four years when “one day, suddenly, we started hearing this super-loud fan,” said Chris.
“We kind of looked at each other, like, what the hell is that?”
He said it’s so loud you can hear it over the television in their apartment.
Kimberley figures the fan’s sound is amplified because of the courtyard-like layout of the area.
“When you put a loud noise in an indoor space — in an enclosed space — it bounces around, and it’s louder. And I think that’s what’s happening with this fan,” she said.
Adaptive reuse of heritage buildings
Kevin Massey, owner of The Old Dublin Bakery, said he is simply renting the commercial space. As a renter, he did not want to say too much about it, other than he understands there was an issue with the fan turning on overnight while he was baking, so the hours were changed.
“I’ve accommodated,” he said.
Massey said he needs to make a living, and he has the fan on as little as possible, even within the new hours.
He said he now does a full night’s work of baking in just five hours.
The change in hours happened around the same time First Light submitted an application to the city for amendments to development regulations that would add heritage use as a discretionary use in the industrial and industrial downtown zones. The application also asks council to permit food preparation under heritage use, and to exempt parking requirements.
On Wednesday, a city spokesperson told The Telegram there was "no official approval" from the city for a business to be operating at Cochrane Centre. "Currently, there are no plans for legal action," the spokesperson wrote.
By adding heritage use to the institutional zones, council could permit designated heritage buildings to have additional uses not normally found in those zones, allowing more flexibility and adaptive reuse of heritage buildings.
“This could be a helpful tool … in allowing churches to have greater flexibility,” Coun. Maggie Burton said at a committee of the whole meeting on Feb. 12 when the application first came before council.
Burton said churches are trying to maintain their buildings, and giving them greater flexibility with what they’re allowed to do while maintaining heritage use is an “important conversation to have.”
However, Coun. Debbie Hanlon said she has heard a lot of complaints from residents, especially about the fan.
“I actually went over one evening with them, and it’s very loud. So, that was never addressed, I don’t think. They’re saying it’s not in violation of any codes. So, now are we going to add more noise to the neighbourhood? Because it’s smack dab in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. So, unless there’s some comfort level that that’s going to be fixed, I can’t see me voting for this.”
Mayor Danny Breen said it’s “been an ongoing issue” and the application before council should allow them to work through it. They decided to gather public feedback on the application, and council is expected to make a decision within a few weeks.
As of press deadline, the Stewart Avenue Residents Association had 100 signatures on an online petition against the application.
Residents say fan exceeds 80 decibels
“There had been one neighbour who had expressed concerns about the noise of the equipment on the building,” said Breannah Tulk, director of business operations with First Light.
She said First Light hired an industrial hygienist to measure the sound, and found it was “well within what would typically be considered allowable limits.”
Tulk said she couldn’t recall the decibel readings, but a video posted by the Stewart Avenue Residents Association on Facebook shows readings exceeding 80 decibels.
“For me, the best outcome would be that business operations are not allowed there at all." — Chris Ringrose
For context, council recently approved Brewdock Bar on Duckworth Street under conditions that the business’s outdoor speakers be directed downward facing the deck, not exceed 70 decibels and be turned off by 9 p.m.
Tulk said the decision to switch the hours for the kitchen was made “in the best interest of being a good neighbour,” and that change “will essentially quell any concerns about noise.”
Except the fan isn’t the only concern.
“Vehicles, when they’re dropping things off to this commercial business or picking things up, drive down Stewart Avenue — which is a very narrow street, really should be a one-way street, but it’s not — and they park at the end of the street, and block us from either turning around or exiting our street,” said Kimberley Ringrose.
“So, to me, it’s a fire and safety hazard.”
Ringrose said there was a truck parked outside the centre for 20 minutes one day.
“I think two minutes after it left, an ambulance came. And had that truck still been there, the ambulance wouldn’t have gotten through.”
Tulk said the facility has a 10-space parking lot.
“So, I don’t see how that might be a concern,” she said.
However, Ringrose said that parking lot is on Bannerman Street, whereas the “majority of the traffic” for the building comes down Stewart Avenue. She questions whether a traffic study was done.
‘Growing pains’ with church changes
Ringrose said she supports giving historic buildings new life, but not by renting out commercial space.
Chris Ringrose agreed.
“For me, the best outcome would be that business operations are not allowed there at all. It’s affordable housing. It was just not zoned for commercial use. This space is too small, it’s too quiet a neighbourhood to sustain any fan of that level, any noise. ... I don’t mind them using it every now and then for the church, or whatever. Ideally, that fan would be gone, though, or replaced with a quieter fan.”
But Tulk said there’s a greater need for social enterprise in downtown spaces, such as the Cochrane Centre, to assist with operating costs.
“We’re able to provide opportunities for businesses who may not otherwise be able to have access to those facilities, which also allow us to be able to provide the programming to vulnerable members of our community who need it most.”
She said there’s “growing pains” when facilities have traditionally been used one way for a long time, such as a church, and then transition to more innovative uses.
Exactly how those growing pains are dealt with will ultimately be decided by city council in the coming weeks.
This story has been updated.