What's on the go, Downtown West?

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If you haven't done it recently (and don't mind playing frogger with construction equipment), take a walk across Waldegrave and explore the west end of downtown. The place is full of of construction - and even where shovels aren't in the ground or steel in the sky, there are plans being made.

At this moment, there are two active construction sites - the much-discussed new Fortis Place at George St. West and Springdale and the less -discussed new Steele hotel going in at George St. West and  Prince St (image here - bottom row centre). There's also an approved addition to the building housing Stantec (image here), and a Hilton planned for the corner of Springdale and New Gower ( image here). A bit farther west, this development is planned for the bottom of Hamilton Avenue (though it's hard to know whether it's going to happen).  

While there aren't any official plans out there, it's also a good bet that a few other sites are going to see redevelopment over the next few years. The Ultramar on New Gower and Waldegrave is an obvious one - some of the early renderings for the new convention centre extension even showed a pedway across the street to whatever goes there! The parking lot next to the Delta is another. The blocks of older buildings along Springdale and Buchanan Streets are probably also up for grabs - plenty are boarded up already. To make a long story short, we may see a majority of the area rebuilt over the next little while.  

Check out this map of all the under construction/approved/possible developments:

West End Map

While it's hard to say what exactly will be in the new municipal plan or development regulations, we've heard quite a bit of support in the community for the location of taller buildings in the area. There's certainly lots of interest from developers in building new Class A office space, and there seems to be much more willingness to let high-rises spring up in the West End than farther east.

So, St. John's has a pretty big opportunity on its hands. We're essentially building a whole new downtown west of Waldegrave, and it's private demand that's driving it. There will be hundreds, if not thousands of new employees working in the area (we haven't seen any residential proposals yet), with all the benefits that brings for downtown businesses that serve them.

One thing we haven't seen much of, though, is thinking about the area as a whole. A few things come to mind:

Pedestrian Access

The area of Downtown West that's seeing the most change is bounded by Water St. West (6 lanes), Waldegrave St (3 lanes), New Gower St (5 lanes) and Pitts Memorial Drive (an expressway).  The whole area is primarily designed to funnel cars into and out of the downtown, something that often happens at high speeds. Sidewalks are fairly narrow for the most part, and the intersection of Water and Waldegrave has channeled right turn lanes with yield signs, which drivers tend to treat like onramps.  Moving farther west, the western stretch of older commercial buildings is cut off by Pitts Memorial Drive.

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Not so friendly if you're on foot

While this end of downtown was a dead zone, this probably made some sense from a traffic engineering perspective. Now that this area of town is becoming something much more like the rest of downtown - full of hotels, offices, restaurants, and (likely) stores, is this a sustainable situation? As the neighbourhood currently is, there is a definite disincentive for employees there to cross these roads and walk to other destinations downtown - or for shoppers to come down this way. So what could be done? A few ideas come to mind, some more costly than others:

  • Put Water Street and New Gower Street on road diets. Reduce the lanes, narrow the streets, build wider sidewalks and boulevards between them and the road.
  • Redesign the intersections to make them more pedestrian-friendly
  • Start treating George St. West as the pedestrian gateway to the neighbourhood. Unlike the other streets nearby, George St. West is still pedestrian-scaled. Could a set of lights or other pedestrian crossing features be added there?

Do you have any other ideas for making this end of downtown more accessible to pedestrians? Comment down below!

One downside to all of these strategies is that none of them make it more accessible from the West. The onramps to Pitts Memorial are a pretty big barrier - but it's hard to imagine how they could be reconfigured not to be, without taking the whole thing down.  Lots of big cities have done just that - could St. John's be ready for it?

There are certainly concerns about commercial traffic, too - lots of big trucks from the port use all these roads to get things in and out of town. Finally, if you've ever driven through there at rush hour, it can indeed be a parking lot - though that begs the question of whether it makes sense to design roads around their peak use.

Mix of buildings and uses in the neighbourhood

Right now, Downtown West is an interesting mix. You have some heritage structures (if you've never been inside George St. United Church, go in - it's gorgeous), some older commercial buildings with stores above (like these on New Gower), a few interesting (and rare) bits of 30s/40s architecture, some older homes in pretty rough shape, and some older commercial buildings.  Across the roads, you find the Convention Centre, the Delta Hotel, and the Port.

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There are still a few houses and apartments on the sidestreets

The question needs to be asked: what do we want this neighbourhood to look like, and how do we get there? So far, most construction has been on empty land. That will likely change. Should the city allow the older buildings to be knocked down and replaced, or should we protect them? Is that fair to their owners, who might otherwise be able to sell them for redevelopment?

Right now, the area has two places to eat, and not a single café. With tons of office workers and hotel guests pouring in, there will be businesses looking to capitalize. How should we accommodate them? Right now, there is plenty of empty commercial space in existing buildings there. If these buildings were replaced, there might be newer, shinier commercial space on the ground floors - but the rent would probably be a lot higher, pricing independent businesses out of the market. It's also worth thinking about how the big new buildings will relate to the neighbourhood at street level - how can we make it feel like the other areas of downtown? Should we even try?

Businesses will give several reasons for locating downtowns. Easy connections with other businesses is one. Employee satisfaction is another - people like to be able to step out of their office to run an errand, or buy lunch, or meet someone to plan a new idea. We're also hearing a lot from employers that employees want to live in the centre of town and walk to work. All these things are what makes office space in the rest of downtown so popular; will we be able to duplicate that in Downtown West?

It's also worth remembering that quite a lot of people live quite close to Downtown West. Look up Springdale Street into the West End, or up to the dense neighbourhoods just above the Delta. Are there things we could do as a city to help integrate this new downtown area with the residential neighbourhoods around it? Would this be a good spot for that downtown grocery store that people often dream about, a library, or a community centre?  

Finally, we should remember that Downtown West is a critical part of St. John's efforts to take care of its most vulnerable people. The Salvation Army provides a ton of services from its buildings there. The Jimmy Pratt centre next door is also an important part of this picture. In many cities, the development of previously run-down parts of the downtown has put pressure on these services, sometimes forcing them out to places that are much harder for their clients to access. Are there ways we could help ensure that these agencies and the people they serve still have a home downtown?

Next Steps

Unsurprisingly, we think this is worth a conversation! Do you have some great ideas for the neighbourhood? Have you heard about plans that we haven't? Do you know some people who should be involved in the conversation? Post in the comments here or on Facebook. We're looking to organize some in-person dialogue about this soon - hearing your ideas will help guide us in figuring out who we should try and get in the room.  We're excited to hear what you have to say!

 

Photo Credits

The development enthusiasts over at Skyscraperpage St. John's have done a sterling job at digging up and discussing renders for projects proposed and ongoing, several of which we've linked to here - check out their great forum on development by clicking here...

Written by Happy City at 12:11

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