At the Monday evening council meeting, Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary moved a motion that was spurred by the Cathedral annex application and public engagement process.
“This application had been discussed for quite an extensive amount of time with staff … I believe the proponent said two years ago, or almost two years ago — and to me it’s not good enough that we are getting information about something of that kind of magnitude … about six weeks ago now at Committee of the Whole.
“And it was only for a deferral that we had more in-depth conversation about this. We did not have that information at our fingertips. Yes, I am concerned about public engagement. I’m concerned about council engagement, first and foremost.”
O’Leary moved that until a new heritage bylaw is adopted, applications for additions to designated heritage buildings — excluding those in residential zones — be brought to council before development approval to allow council to consider whether a public meeting is warranted.
She called it an interim measure to ensure other applications don’t slip through the cracks.
It should be clarified: a city spokesperson told The Telegram the original Cathedral annex application was submitted January 2017, but by February of that year — after some staff reviews and correspondence — the file went quiet and was ultimately closed, with no permits or approvals issued. A second application was then made in May this year.
Coun. Maggie Burton, development lead, said under current development regulations council is able to hold a public meeting as soon as a development application is reviewed by the Built Heritage Experts Panel (BHEP) and comes to a Committee of the Whole meeting.
“The process that’s in place right now does allow council to hold meetings with our discretion, and I think we should take on that role more often.”
O’Leary’s motion was defeated, with only councillors Wally Collins, Deanne Stapleton and Deputy Mayor O’Leary voting in favour. Coun. Debbie Hanlon was absent, and all others voted against the motion.
A thorough discussion concluded with Mayor Danny Breen summarizing that councillors believe they should engage the public early — and they already can do this once the BHEP brings a report to Committee of the Whole — but council hasn’t done that in the past.
“It’s something that should be front of mind to do in the future,” said Breen.
Historic Trust criticizes lack of public input
Timeliness in soliciting public input has been criticized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust not only in regard to the Cathedral annex application, but also the proposed JAG Hotel expansion and concert hall on George Street.
The Historic Trust wrote about these concerns in public letters to council.
Regarding the JAG Hotel expansion, the group wrote on July 23:
“The City appears to have met with project proponents for months before aspects of the proposal were made public, resulting in the demolition of the John Howard Society building – with a construction date of circa 1850, one of downtown’s oldest structures — and the preemptive sale of public lane and air rights to the developer. Neither of these substantial decisions, ones that significantly and irrevocably altered the fabric of St. John’s, was made with input from the public.”
The group also wrote on July 25 that the four days’ notice for a public meeting about the proposed Anglican Cathedral annex was “inadequate to allow the Historic Trust to provide the City with its opinion regarding the proposed development.
“Furthermore, revised renderings of the proposal were posted on social media on the same day as the public information session, providing even less time to adequately review and comment.”
Culture shift required
Burton said the issue she sees with public engagement is there’s a desire not to lengthen the process for developers.
She said council needs to consider taking more time with some applications.
“Meaningful and authentic community involvement in a design process — I think that’s the big issue here.”
She said creating urban design guidelines —as mentioned in the draft Envision Municipal Plan – is a next step for council once the new heritage by-law is adopted.
“Meaningful and authentic community involvement in a design process — I think that’s the big issue here.” — Maggie Burton
“That’s going to require a culture shift within the development community as well as within the city, and how we engage on these issues.
“A developer might come in and be pretty married to the concept — to drawings of buildings – prior to any engagement with broader experts in the community, or with the neighbourhood. So, it’s like you come in with finished drawings that the community is startled by and there’s a public backlash against it, then you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself.
“So, while it’s true that council needs better heritage and design guidelines, it’s also true that developers need to authentically engage with the community, and that might mean that people see earlier architectural renderings and they may evolve, actually change, based on engagement from the experts and neighbourhoods.
“We’d all be better if we built a culture based on the question of ‘How do we make this work?’ instead of an all-or-nothing mentality — build or not build.”