Decoding the Development Regulations: What would they mean for St. John’s?

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 process).

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 it. With 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, er…envisions.

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 Development” zoning.

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 scale.

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 anytime soon.

Ideas for better alignment between the Plan and the Regulations

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 plan:

  • 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. John’s

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 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 regulations?

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!

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