The Future of St. John’s

TEXT Taryn Sheppard

This month, architects and their industry-related entourage descended upon St. John’s for the annual RAIC festival and conference, marking the first time the festival has ever been held in Newfoundland. What makes this a good time to bring it here? Festival planners at the RAIC say that members want to get out and see the country a little more when it comes to venues, and after receiving an application from the NLAA to host the festival this year, they jumped at the opportunity.

The theme for this year’s festival was “Deep Roots in a New Energy City.” On the surface, it’s a simple tagline that points out two pretty obvious characteristics of St. John’s: one, it’s old, and two, offshore oil is the new force driving its economy. But it could also be interpreted as highlighting a conflict. Experiencing unprecedented growth, St. John’s is under pressure to serve the cultural interests of the heritage and tourism sectors, as well as the insatiable appetite of new business developments. What will be the eventual outcome? Which will win the race to dominate the urban landscape?

Last year, the number of visitors to Newfoundland exceeded the population count. This increase in visitors has been attributed to the successful tourism and branding campaign by local ad gurus. The TV spots and print ads depict a powerful, almost mystical landscape populated intermittently by humble, accommodating folk. The ads bombard us with the saturated colours of crooked, picturesque townscapes. They also talk about how when you get here, you can lose track of time, get lost on the barrens, and forget the horrible banality of your normal life because you are so far away from civilization. To be sure, there is a complex place-branding technique at work behind these scenes, one intended to construct a fictional place tailored to the vacation fantasies of others. The landscapes are super-vast, the streetscapes are supersaturated, the nature is ultra-pure. It’s a hyper-real St. John’s. 

City regulations for building within heritage areas ensure that the qualities of the hyper-real St. John’s are cultivated in perpetuity. In the 1970s, there was a movement to protect the character of the downtown, which led to the introduction of heritage status areas. This relatively drastic move had a powerful effect on the development of the downtown in terms of protecting historically important architecture. But it also polarized the debate between the interests of progress versus the interests of heritage and culture.

Now, new residential architecture reproduces the “jellybean row” all the time, distilling the look with brighter colours, and clean and tidy trim. New commercial and institutional architecture is undergoing the same process. Developers know that throwing in some double-hung windows and Main Street-style sconces will help their project meet with as little resistance as possible from the City and the public. The qualities of the much celebrated vernacular have mutated into a one-size-fits-all clapboard and white trim glove, smothering any form of new building. The new Courtyard Marriott Hotel on Duckworth Street is a perfect example. Or Stella’s Circle at Rawlins Cross, near the upper limit of the city’s historic downtown. 

The Practice of Everyday Life in St. John’s

However, not far beyond Rawlins Cross and the downtown you’ll find a city more typical of North American urbanism: a place where you probably don’t work anywhere near where you live, and you really need a car to get around. An increasingly greater number of people are commuting to work from surrounding suburban areas like Conception Bay South, Paradise and Mount Pearl, which could add up to more than two hours in a car on an average day with decent weather. Public transit options are limited to say the least. The city’s bus system is not exactly reliable, and the ridership is low enough to cause the company the occasional financial and existential crisis. 

The rental vacancy rate across the entire city is almost zero, and house prices are averaging out at $300,000 for something you can expect to renovate. There will be over 3,600 new single-family dwellings built in the city this year–migration to the city from around the island and other parts of the world means the city’s population is actually increasing for the first time in a long while. 

In the past 10 to 15 years, St. John’s has been following in the footsteps of many other North American cities by parcelling up huge tracts of land on its outskirts and cultivating them into power centres a.k.a. smart centres a.k.a. big-box retail developments. The smart centre at Stavanger Drive was the pioneer, springing up near the city airport almost 20 years ago amidst the thick black spruce that dominate the Avalon Peninsula. This windy, inhospitable and paved expanse of consumer opportunity is at once loved and loathed. It’s spatially distorted and organizationally hostile to human beings without vehicles. But every couple of weeks a new national or global chain opens for business, and the people rejoice. And we are spending money with abandon; last year, the average disposable income in Newfoundland grew by 6.3%, retail sales increased by 5.1%, and it’s not forecasted to slow down any time soon.

In the past couple of years, a new smart centre has popped up in the west end of town, and another even more massive project is in the works in the southernmost reaches of the city’s edge. Former Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams is the developer of a new 10-square-kilometre residential/industrial/commercial plan that will incorporate a new big-box shopping area in the model of Stavanger Drive. It’s a $5-billion project that will expand the city at its southwest end, where Williams currently has his Glendenning Golf Course. Included in the first phase of development will be 47 acres for residential, 72,000 square feet of retail space, and 324,000 square feet of industrial space. The project is expected to take 20 years to complete.

While there are numerous new financial nodes developing in and around these suburban power centres, there is also a big push to focus more business activity in the downtown by developing new office space. A pattern is emerging whereby new tall buildings (over 10 storeys) are situated in the west end of downtown closer to the harbour dry docks, near Hamilton Avenue and Water Street West. The new Fortis Tower will be the most visible, rising from an old lumber yard site. Its neighbour is another 13-storey edifice, the Deacon Office Tower, posturing itself as the city’s answer to New York’s Flatiron Building. And a couple of blocks away, a new office tower called 351 Water Street is being erected on the old site of one of St. John’s longer-lived downtown department stores. Hastily being pieced together out of precast concrete, it will unfortunately include a six-storey-high parking garage along Water Street, downtown’s prime commercial and tourism corridor. 

Meanwhile, new residential projects in the downtown are trying to accommodate, challenge or mutate the hyper-real vernacular of downtown living, with varying degrees of success. At one extreme is the development of the old Avalon Telephone Building on Duckworth Street, one of the core’s more challenging sites. Located on a slope with a very narrow and irregular footprint, the existing building has been condemned for years, and a new building will be necessary. The design will divide the residence logically and elegantly into three masses, respectfully informed by the site footprint and adjacent buildings. It also incorporates the subtle use of contemporary materials. At the other end of the spectrum, a new condominium project nearby stretches a vernacular skin of yellow clapboard, white trim, and mansard roofs over fiv
e storeys of condominiums, gracelessly placing them on top of a five-storey parking garage with a glass portico and port-hole windows. The result is probably the crassest example of developers paying lip service to architectural heritage the town has seen yet. 

Stylistic mutants like this are the direct result of the clash between a booming economy and a narrowly prescribed, heritage-based architectural expression. But they have already tested the limits of that expression and seem to be questioning its relevancy. The idea of an urban Newfoundland experience is no longer as far-fetched as it may have once seemed. But at the same time that the city seems to want to forge connections with the rest of the world, it is also obligated to showcase and capitalize on its isolation and obscurity. The preoccupation with the hyper-real vernacular could be seen as a reason why examples of new architecture that participate in a global design discourse are disappointingly rare in this city. CA

Taryn Sheppard is an intern architect working at Sheppard Case Architects in St. John’s, Newfoundland.