This city, “tumblin’ up over the hills,” as local people say, is one of the oldest in North America, founded in 1583. What’s left is mostly late-Victorian row upon row of flat-roofed, baywindowed wooden houses put up hurriedly after the Great Fire of 1892. The reason St. John’s has magic is that the guts of it — the square mile I grew up in, not the postConfederation ticky-tacky on the fringes — still looks and functions as if it had been meant for people to live in, not for someone to make money out of.
“Where else,” Toronto architect Jack Diamond asked recently, “could you look down your street and see a ship?” Not in Halifax, say, or Montreal or Toronto. The soul and vital principle of this shabby, eccentric,
battered, frequently smelly, fragile and ultimately gorgeous city is the sublime relationship between it and the sea.
Enter Atlantic Place, a 20-story, 270-foot office-hotel complex going up on Water Street, the main shopping street. The man building it, Andrew Crosbie, younger brother of provincial Finance Minister John Crosbie, is one of the rare Newfoundland merchant princes who actually puts his money back into the province. He also genuinely believes that Atlantic Place will be “a vital trade and social centre” attracting millions of dollars from tourists and conventioneers.
Crosbie is right when he says Water Street desperately needs a shot in the arm. Strewn with overhead signs and wires, it’s long been losing ground to suburban shopping malls. Given its glorious harbor-front site, Atlantic Place at six or seven stories instead of 20 could do much for the St. John’s core.
That this should be happening in St. John’s — just when Toronto and Vancouver and Victoria are all trying to halt rampant development — is an irony. It symbolizes the ethic that skyscrapers and expressways equate automatically with progress; that a city can be valued by the size of its tax base. It’s tragic but true: many Newfoundlanders, after a generation of being described as “quaint,” assume that the only way Toronto will take them seriously is if they look like Toronto.
William G. Adams is Mayor of St. John’s. A dapper old-style pol, Adams pushed through Atlantic Place without a public hearing even though his
Sandra Gwyn is a free-lance writer and a native of Newfoundland
own city planning staff rejected it. When a group of citizens protested, he brushed them aside as “drifters and dreamers.” If the notion of skyscrapers is new in St. John’s, so also is the notion of anyone daring to oppose them —or anything else the Mayor does. Traditionally, city council operates as a claque for the commercial class, with sweeping powers.
Organized opposition to Adams began around the time Joey was defeated — that great watershed in Island politics — when a handful of people started asking impertinent questions about Plan 91, a 20-year urban development scheme drafted, predictably, by a Montreal firm. This spring, 4,000 people signed a petition demanding a public hearing on Atlantic Place. This helped to convince Memorial University’s Extension Service, with backing from Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, to hold an unofficial one last May.
Our City In Conference — “a public forum on the kind of city we want to live in” — was three sweaty, grueling days of panels and workshops in the Old Nickel Theatre (itself, with ravaged 1973 skin and good 1876 bones, a neat metaphor for what people were there for). Not many average citizens turned out; mostly they belonged to the Historic Trust, or the People’s Planning Program, or the Defenders of Signal Hill. Yet the meeting achieved its purpose: protest that weekend became legitimate and therefore, in political terms, potentially dangerous.
For one thing (because organizers made astute use of what’s become almost a Canada-wide citizen advocacy Chautauqua circuit) the big name resource people — including Ottawa’s former chairman of the National Capital Commission, Douglas Fullerton (a native of Waterford Bridge Road coming home for the first time in nearly 50 years); architects Diamond and Ray Affleck; Toronto Alderman William Kilbourn — all said, only more strongly and with imported credibility, what the local critics had been saying all along: “Stop the Arterial Road. Stop Atlantic Place.”
“These things can and will kill your core,” bellowed Fullerton in his impassioned keynote speech. “Raise hell, because the battle can only be fought by confrontation.” Diamond, as his contribution, pointed out that with renovation and some judicious infilling, there was probably enough good housing in the old city to do for the next 20 years. As for conservation, Jacques Dalibard of Northern Affairs’ historic sites division said that much more important than turning individ-
ual buildings into museums was saving whole neighborhoods. If St. John’s could come up with a plan to do this, he implied, Ottawa could probably come up with the cash.
The reformers, spurred on by Kilbourn, have organized a slate of candidates for the fall civic election. Fighting this one will be a lot tougher than stage-managing a conference. The ginger-groupers seem less sure of what they are for than what they are against. In particular, they’ll have to prove that being anti-development doesn’t mean being anti-jobs. Not that the citizens of St. John’s are the only ones involved. If St. John’s becomes a mini mainland city, there will be no St. John’s left for the rest of us to go to. Which is what Douglas Fullerton and Jack Diamond and William Kilbourn were trying to say.
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