One of the biggest decisions this City Council will make is
coming up fast, and most people haven't even heard of it. It sounds
dry as a bone, but the upcoming adoption of new development
regulations is going to lay down the rules that will shape our city
for many years to come.
You might have heard about "
Envision St. John's", the city's brand-spanking-new Municipal
Plan, which was adopted in principle this August after a long
period of consultation and revision (Full disclosure: Happy City
was part of the committee guiding the consultation
With themes of "Environmental Systems," "Vibrant, Complete
Neighbourhoods," "Strong, Diversified Economy," "Transportation and
Services," and "Quality Urban Design," this is a big-picture vision
document for a more sustainable, livable St. John's. To quote the
plan's own vision statement:
"St. John's will have a future of continued economic prosperity
and diversity, where citizens have a strong sense of identity and
appreciation for their cultural, natural and built heritage and the
arts. This city has active, healthy citizens, living in affordable,
accessible, complete neighbourhoods. St. John's attracts and
welcomes investment, residents and visitors from the region, the
province, and around the world."
Although the Municipal Plan does have a laundry list of specific
goals, that's all they are: goals. Where the rubber hits the road,
for most of them, is the
development regulations. These are the rules that govern land
use and building in St. John's. Want to know how many parking
spaces you need for your health and wellness centre? That's in
there. Everything from building setbacks to subdivision design to
wetlands is in this doorstopper of a document.
With the new Municipal Plan coming in, City staff have been
working hard to draft development regulations that would implement
a first draft released in August, we've been chewing through
them (with more than a little help from some very smart people) to
see whether the city the Regulations specify matches up with the
city the Plan envisions.
Spoiler alert: They don't quite line up.
The Big Picture
Overall, the impression our readers had of the new development
regulations was that most (though not all) of the time they don't
get in the way of the kind of development that Envision,
Indeed, there are some new elements to the regs which really do
create openings for the kind of complete, mixed neighbourhoods the
Plan dwells on.
What there isn't, though, are rules that would mandate this kind
of development. Under these draft regulations, for the most part,
it'll be up to private-sector developers to take a leap - and
that's not something that they are generally known for.
Before we get into some of the ideas the folks we talked to had
about how to improve the Plan/Regulations fit, it's worth talking
about the one place where the regs do seem to have been made with
the Municipal Plan in mind - the creation of a "Planned Mixed
What is "Planned Mixed Development?"
If you take a look at a zoning map of St.
John's, it's a bit of a crazy quilt, with some pretty small
patches of very specific zoning. The proposed "Planned Mixed"
zoning takes an end run around that. It can only be applied to
bigger areas (4 hectares minimum), and instead of regulating what
things in that area are used for, it says that the zoning kicks in
once the City has developed a comprehensive plan for that area.
Basically, it's a vehicle to do something that hasn't happened a
lot in St. John's, which is planning at the neighbourhood
In the Municipal Plan, there are 7 areas marked out as
"intensification areas" where the City should plan to add density
in the future. It seems pretty obvious that the "Planned Mixed"
zoning could be a tool here. Council could (we think) take one of
those areas (say, the area around Ropewalk Lane), rezone everything
in it to "Planned Mixed," and then get cracking on crafting a plan
for its mixed-use future.
There are, however, a couple big question marks here:
- Political will: By the standards of St.
John's, it would be a highly unusual thing to have Council rezone a
block of properties without being asked to do so by the owners -
and it's unclear why owners would request it on their own. If your
expertise is in running a strip mall, would you want to open up a
conversation that might lead to a plan for 4 stories of apartments
on top of it? In any case, the chances of enough property owners
coming together to assemble a whole intensification area into one
new neighbourhood plan are pretty minimal. If this city is going to
have planned intensification, leadership will likely need to come
from the very top.
- Planning capacity: there are some very skilled
people on the planning staff of the City - but there aren't very
many of them. We have 3 planners here, and doing comprehensive
neighbourhood plans for seven intensification areas (alongside
their regular work) is a pretty big ask. Without leveraging some
exterior resources (MUN, perhaps?) it's hard to see this happening
Ideas for better alignment between the Plan and the
We recently sat down with some smart people for an evening with
the Draft Development Regulations, and here are a few of the ideas
we heard about how to make them a better fit with the goals of the
- Include accessibility/inclusion, pedestrian access, and
transit service in the Submission Guidelines (Section
4.4.1): When someone proposes a development idea to the City, there
is a long list of things they have to include in that proposal -
from the location and site survey to storm water and snow
management plans. What's really striking, though, is how
car-focused this checklist is. Applicants generally have to provide
information about vehicular access and off-street parking, but
there is no requirement to provide information on access by any
other mode (foot/bike/bus). There is also no requirement to provide
information about access for people with disabilities. Even without
changing the assessment criteria, it would be interesting to see
what would happen if applicants were required to at least show
their thinking on these issues. To be a bit more bold, there could
even be a points-based assessment of proposals, with points for
each type of access.
- Put in rules about setbacks and street-fronting
entrances: Outside of the downtown core, St. John's has an
overwhelmingly car-focused design philosophy. Buildings tend to sit
far back from the street, with big parking lots in front of them.
This makes the experience of walking (or biking) down a main street
downright unpleasant, and certainly not conducive to the vision of
accessible, complete neighbourhoods that is in the plan. The
regulations could change this by requiring new buildings to come
right out to the property line, with parking in the back. To make
this work, they'd also need to specify that the buildings need to
have doors on the main road - otherwise you get buildings like
Shoppers Drug Mart at Torbay/MacDonald, which is close to the
street but forces pedestrians and cyclists to circle it. This is
one of those cases where regulations are key; having 2 doors on the
building is an added cost and complication for developers; without
being compelled to do it, they rarely do, especially when using
off-the-shelf designs for brand-name stores and such.
- Be more proactive about landscaping
requirements: the word "tree" doesn't appear
anywhere in the draft development regulations, and there is nothing
in there to restrict the common practice of scraping a new
development area down to bare rock before building; with the
intense environmental focus of the new Plan, this could be an area
where the City could enforce more creative solutions.
- Revisit minimum parking requirements: Outside
of the downtown core (where there are some exemptions), pretty much
every development in St. John's has substantial minimum parking
requirements. The City could relax them and let developers decide
how much parking to provide; they could even mandate parking
maximums so that parking isn't overbuilt.
- Density bonusing: many cities now have a
system in which developers can build more density on a site (say 5
stories instead of 4) in return for providing a public amenity (a
park, or a bike trail, or some such). This could be another way to
use the development regulations to encourage new urban forms in St.
Those are just a few ideas that came up on a quick read-over of
the regs; we're sure there are other tweaks that folks might find!
If you find one of your own, email email@example.com and we can
add it to this blog post.
Thoughts on process
The Development Regulations also include some rules about the
process around development in the city, and our evening readers had
some thoughts on that too:
- Changing the notification rules: Right now,
the draft regs say the City has to publish development
notifications in a newspaper (ie, the Telegram) 14 days in advance,
and notify the neighbours whose properties would be affected. We
know that city staff have been reading about other notification
options; would it be worth building in a requirement to have a
poster on site with an image of the proposal, or an email
notification on city lists?
- Avoiding frivolous applications: If you watch
council for a while, one thing you see is a steady stream of
applications that use up a bunch of time, with not chance of
success - developments in protected watershed areas are the classic
example. Are there ways to head these off earlier by changes to the
More broadly, one place where there has been little process has
been in the review of these development regulations; there has been
nothing like the extensive public consultation used to develop the
Municipal Plan. With a new council in place, the approach may
change - but for now, it's up to us all to give the new regs a read
and share our ideas.
This blog post has focused on tweaks to the draft regulations -
we've also heard from some folks with big ideas on how to change
them more fundamentally, and from folks who are comparing the
existing regs to the proposed new ones. We'll feature those ideas
in a series of blogs in the coming weeks!