Nov 11

Time to fight for PlanSJ

Many of the people who have participated in the PlanSJ initiative over the last 22 months probably think the work is done, and that adoption of the new Municipal Plan is a certainty. While it’s hard to imagine an outright rejection of the Plan by Council, there is still a significant risk that the Plan’s policies could be modified — to satisfy the desires of business and regional interests — in ways that would compromise the Plan’s prime goals: municipal sustainability and quality of life for Saint John citizens.

We’re in the last stages of the PlanSJ process … at least, the part of the process leading up to the adoption of the Municipal Plan. A final window remains open for public feedback to Common Council. It’s now very important that all those citizens who took the time to participate in PlanSJ also take a moment to communicate their support for the Plan (or their criticisms of it) to Council.

You can be very sure that the ‘big players’ in our region are petitioning Council at this crucial time and there’s a risk that this late and highly motivated input could skew the perception of Council and lead to undesirable changes to the Plan. Our councillors also need to hear our views and be guided by our enthusiasm for the work that’s been crafted by Saint John citizens over the last two years.

Letters and emails are being accepted until midnight on Thursday the 10th. If you don’t have time to send a letter, fire off a brief email. (Not sure how to start it? Appended below is the text from my letter to Council, in case that helps.) Every single statement of support from Saint John citizens will help ensure that PlanSJ stays on track, and remains a truthful reflection of our collective desires and aspirations.

To submit your input, email the Common Clerk at Or use the other options provided at the PlanSJ page. (There’s also some interesting documentation there.) Remember to provide your full name, contact info and ADDRESS so the Clerk can confirm you’re a Saint John resident.


To:          Mayor and Councillors, Common Council, City of Saint John

From:    David Drinnan
Member, PlanSJ Citizen Advisory Committee


Regarding: Adoption of PlanSJ

PlanSJ is approaching a watershed moment – both for the process and for our community. Adoption of the Municipal Plan will launch a new chapter in this city’s history and make quality of life and fiscal sustainability not only priorities, but measurable goals.

A wide range of residents participated in the various PlanSJ meetings, workshops and consultations over the past year and a half, and the resulting Plan reflects the many voices of Saint John citizens. Unfortunately, I fear that the loudest voices Council is likely to hear now that we’re close to adoption belong to those who either dislike certain aspects of the Plan due to impacts on individual or business interests, or belong to the few who resist PlanSJ’s implementation altogether. It is important that Council does not let those few, powerful voices drown out the community aspirations of the many citizens who have participated in this process.

With that in mind, I’d like to make some specific arguments in support of the new Plan in its current form:

Saint John citizens first. This Plan belongs to the citizens of our city, not to the businesses that operate here, and not to the good residents of Greater Saint John. Our priority must be the wishes and interests of our citizens first and foremost. Economic and regional interests are factors that influence sustainability and quality of life, and must be considered in any decision, but they are not our direct goals.

Instead, the promotion of business and regional prosperity should be tools we use to maximize benefits for our citizens. All too often in this city’s history it’s been the other way around, and Saint Johners’ quality of life has been compromised for the sake of business or regional interests. While that might have been good for business, and good for the region, it hasn’t been a winning strategy for the City of Saint John or for its residents. Saint John must come first and Saint John citizens must be the priority. This Plan embodies that imperative.

Status quo is not an option. One thing that has been clear to every member of the PlanSJ team, and to almost every participant in this process, is the fact that the status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable. This city faces a catastrophic future if we continue down our current path. Those who argue against change, or even against the very idea of strong municipal policy, are either blind to this reality or – worse – willing to sacrifice the future of our city and its residents’ quality of life in favour of other goals or in protection of entrenched interests.

We cannot afford to hold on to old and broken models. We must embrace change, despite the short term costs it will impose on many of us, and recognize the opportunity not only to reduce service burdens but to bring new kinds of prosperity to this city. To reject the need for change, or even to simply defer it, would be inexcusable.

Development and a range of residential options. Some in the business and development community have decried the limitations that the Municipal Plan will impose on suburban development in the city, suggesting that a lack of suburban options will increasingly drive migration to outlying communities. I find that argument baseless for the following reasons:

  1. Availability of suburban housing has already proven itself to be a poor ‘competitive advantage’ over outlying communities, in terms of both immigration and retention.
  2. The city already has a wide range of residential options in suburban settings.
  3. What the city lacks are more attractive options for urban living, needed to enable greater immigration and to give Saint John residents better options for staying in the city.
  4. The new Municipal Plan and the follow-on incentives needed to support it will promote infill and development in specific opportunity areas without reducing that existing suburban residential stock.
  5. Abandonment of the strategy of increased concentration and investment in opportunity areas is, effectively, a return to the status quo, as discussed above.

I acknowledge that the change in policies will be challenging for the development community. The implementation of the Plan – in terms of both restrictions and incentives – will create pain points for some developers, and opportunities for others. In the longer term, those developers whose business models and philosophy are compatible with a sustainable Saint John will prosper.

What will be critically important is the support and incentive structure the City provides once the Municipal Plan is adopted, to protect, motivate and reward those developers who are willing to adapt to this new framework and build for a more sustainable future. Smart incentives and investments in specific neighbourhoods will be crucial with respect to both infill and new development.

Board of Trade. I’m guessing that Council may have received further comments from the Saint John Board of Trade requesting modifications to the Plan to protect business interests (for example, accommodations for ‘homegrown’ businesses such as Moosehead, JD Irving and Irving Oil, or provisions for multi-functional energy transmission corridors [1]). As stated previously, I feel very strongly that the Municipal Plan’s policies should remain focused on the benefits to Saint John citizens. Any City decision regarding corporate projects and business opportunities should be based on a cost-effectiveness analysis that balances the risks and burdens placed on citizens against the economic benefits for citizens.

Hardwiring blanket accommodations into the Municipal Plan simply isn’t appropriate, regardless of whether the corporate actor is ‘homegrown’. Projects that could impact the quality of life for Saint Johners should be forced into substantive reviews (including, if appropriate, environmental assessments) to ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs and risks, not only for the citizenry at large but for the specific neighbourhoods affected by those projects. (The recent power line controversy on the Lower West Side provides a clear example of this type of situation.) The Municipal Plan’s policies should not be modified in any way that could later be used to justify an ‘expedited’ treatment of any project that has the potential to impact quality of life.

Airport. I also assume that Council has received comments from the Airport reiterating its request for designation as an Opportunity Area under PlanSJ, in addition to other supportive language within policy statements [2]. I am very sympathetic to the airport’s plight. The ongoing lack of federal support and the Airport’s omission from the federal government’s Atlantic Gateway Strategy has put the airport at great risk, and the Airport’s own inability to define a viable business plan has increased that risk. Our city benefits from continued access to a local airport, as do the many other communities in the airport’s catchment area, and it’s critically important that a strategy be found to ensure Saint John Airport’s sustainability.

However, that strategy must not place the burden on the shoulders of Saint John taxpayers alone, either directly through the infrastructure investments that an Opportunity Area designation would mandate, or indirectly through competition by the airport with the City’s own industrial park operations. The demands of the Airport to incorporate language into PlanSJ that would open the door to those types of costs is simply unacceptable. The solution to the Airport’s problems must be a regional one that shares the burden fairly across the many communities the Airport serves, and should also involve the other levels of government that benefit very directly from the taxes that result from airport operation.

Frankly, the suggestion that PlanSJ policy should be amended in a way that could eventually make Saint Johners solely responsible for subsidizing a regional facility makes me very angry, as a Saint John taxpayer and as a CAC member.

The changes in PlanSJ language made recently to address the Airport’s concerns are sufficient; if Saint Johners are going to be asked to pay to keep the Airport open, they should first be asked if that’s what they really want to do, and what costs they’re willing to incur to make that possible. The new language in the Plan will require public hearings before any change in policy regarding the Airport (as well as requiring the Airport to first produce a viable business plan).

In conclusion. I hope that Council has received a range of feedback during this comment period. My fear is that the majority of Saint Johners who support PlanSJ and those who have participated in the process may have assumed that the heavy lifting has been done, and that the Municipal Plan is certain to be adopted in its current form. I urge Council to consider the full range of input and citizen participation over the last year and a half when dispositioning the feedback received in the last few weeks.

The new Municipal Plan is a tangible product of Saint Johners’ desires and aspirations; it truly is community vision translated into hard, precise policy. The Plan’s value to current and future Councils and planners will be enormous, guiding decision-making to help ensure that this city develops in directions its citizens want; that is, so long as the Plan is adopted in its current form – as a true reflection of our citizens’ priorities. The Plan, and the commitment that Council has shown in launching and supporting the PlanSJ initiative, will help to ensure that those decisions serve to protect quality of life for Saint John citizens and promote a sustainable future for this community.

I want to thank you all for your commitment to PlanSJ. It has been an honour to serve on the Citizens Advisory Committee, and I appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to contribute to this process.

Best regards,

Dave Drinnan


[1] Letter from the Saint John Board of Trade to the City of Saint John Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Development, 2011-04-21.

[2] Presentation from the Saint John Airport to Common Council, 2011-08-15.



May 11

New challenges to an old partnership

This is possibly the most crucial moment in Saint John’s recent history when it comes to municipal planning and land use. Urban sprawl has challenged the ability of the City to sustain itself. Failing infrastructure has been left to decay to the point where catastrophic investments are needed. Traditional industries have failed. Many residents have fled what they perceive to be a dirty, industrial city centre at a time when industry is seen as a necessary evil rather than an asset. Out-migration is an ongoing challenge, and immigration is an opportunity that the City has yet to realize. The tax base has crumbled while service and infrastructure costs have risen. The City faces a crisis unless things change.

So it is very fortunate that the Saint John Port Authority – a key partner in the future of this City – has undertaken a review of land-use planning at the same time that the City has revisited its own municipal planning.

Saint John has always been a port city, and Saint John residents are inherently comfortable with the types of industry and activity that have traditionally been associated with a seaport. The Port was once the heart of this city. Dating back to the earliest days of Saint John, the harbour was the raison d’etre of the community. The Port used to be a primary employer in Saint John, giving jobs to a significant percentage of the total workforce. More than that, much of the remaining employment in the community could be mapped directly back to Port activity, either in terms of supporting the Port, or because of the opportunities created by trade through the Port.

The Port was integrated into the very fabric of the city. Port lands were accessible. More than accessible, since in fact a great many residents actually spent part or all of their working day at or on the Harbour. There were no security perimeters, no barriers to entry, and no sense that the waterfront itself was ‘off limits’ to Saint Johners.

Now, however, the Port is littered with derelict space and forbidding fences. Our Port is no longer accessible, no longer a part of daily life for the vast majority of Saint Johners. And it is no longer a primary employer.

The fact is, the Port will never again be what it one was. That’s the reality that most of us have quietly come to terms with. But now there are prospects that the Port could become something much different from the traditional seaport of yesteryear or even the rotting, inaccessible shoreline we see today; the Port of tomorrow might simply be a heavy industrial park, transported into the heart of our city onto otherwise prime waterfront property.

That’s a dystopian vision of our urban future, and hopefully an unlikely one. Unfortunately, the Saint John Port Authority’s current draft of its land-use plan seems to allow the Port to lease land to any industrial operator that comes knocking, regardless of whether the business is marine-related, and regardless of how heavy that ‘heavy industry’ gets. Worse still, tax incentives may make the Port a more attractive industrial park than the City’s actual industrial parks.

From the Port’s perspective, that’s a necessary evil, if not a desirable outcome. The Port is desperate to generate revenue from otherwise idle land as it struggles to survive as a working port. Its corporate imperative is to survive and to stop bleeding money, if not to actually generate profits. The potential impact on Saint Johners of coring out the heart of the City and siting noxious industrial operations adjacent to dense residential neighbourhoods, or of pulling the rug out from under the City’s own industrial parks, isn’t something the Port is going to lose sleep over.

But it’s something that Saint Johners should be losing sleep over, and talking about, and making noise about. But they haven’t. The 60-day public consultation period for the land-use plan has now come and gone. The Saint John Port Authority (SJPA) held two public information sessions, the first of which had almost no attendees, the second of which was peopled mainly by International Longshoremen Association (ILA) reps, commercial and First Nations fishers, and a couple of environmental activists. There has been virtually no attention from residents, little social media chatter and no press coverage. The SJPA did its part to make the public consultation process accessible, yet as far as I can tell there was almost no interest outside of the ‘usual suspects’.

I’m not sure if this is because the Port continues to be such a fixture in the community that people simply take it for granted, if residents don’t understand the potential impacts on the community, if there’s a foundation of trust in the management of the Port, or if people simply don’t have the optimism or stomach needed to tackle an organization that exists largely outside the public sphere of influence. (As a federal entity, the Port is unfettered by provincial or municipal approvals, and largely isolated from local public opinion.) And there’s the fear that I’ve heard some express when it comes to anything related to the ILA.

However, my money would be on the general apathy that Saint Johners seem to feel regarding many community issues.

Unfortunately, that failure to represent means that the Port now has a reasonable justification for proceeding with its plans on the basis that the public doesn’t seem to care one way or the other what the Port does.

That might turn out to be very unfortunate if, in a few years, big ugly smelly dangerous things start appearing on the waterfront or, for those of you living in the Lower West Side, just down the street from your front door. It’s also going to seem unfortunate when citizens start asking for access to the waterfront, or dream of a cross-harbour walk-on ferry, and the Port says no. It could be very unfortunate for the aspirations citizens have expressed during the PlanSJ initiative, with two of the residential intensification areas in the direct line of fire of potential future Port development.

On the other hand, maybe we’re collectively comfortable with the idea of living in a backdrop out of Bladerunner because many of us think that we already do. But there’s a big difference between the hard-scrabble skeleton of mid-20th century shipping and industry that we live in today, and what could be landing on our doorstep over the next few years. Think Saint John is dirty and industrial now? Just you wait for it.

For the record, here’s the letter of comment I sent in to the Port Authority in response to the draft land-use plan and the various discussions that have taken place over the last two months. Key points:

  • I fear what the Port Authority may drop into the core of our city, and in particular the Lower West Side;
  • I’m disappointed with the Port’s inability or unwillingness to provide better public access to the waterfront;
  • The federal government needs to make changes to the Port Authority to allow it to be responsible to the municipality and province as well as to the feds, and to incent the Port to sell off lands it doesn’t need; and
  • I desperately hope that the Port integrates itself more into the urban landscape through retail and office developments on Long Wharf, Pugsley and elsewhere.



I’ll close by saying that I am not entirely pessimistic about the future of the relationship between the Port and the City. During discussions with various Port Authority representatives, officials and consultants over the past two months, I’ve been consistently impressed with their professionalism. Despite the poor response, the Port Authority’s effort at public consultation was a genuine one. A great deal of thought and effort went into both the draft land-use plan and the public engagement. Many of these representatives live in Saint John, and they care about the future of the city as well as their Port.

The problems here are structural, not individual. My optimism is based on a trust that the Port Authority will overcome those structural issues (hopefully with the help of the federal government) and seek out ways to protect both the Port’s interests and those of Saint Johners. The Port and the City can work together to find a comfortable middle ground that will give both parties what they need. I just hope it happens, and I just hope it works.


Feb 11

Airport’s big ask

Bernard Leblanc of the Saint John Airport has been very vocal in the last few months about his desire that the City integrate the Airport into its municipal land-use plan in a way that suites the Airport’s needs. Specifically, Leblanc wants the Airport to be able to commercially develop its excess lands, and states that the Airport must be designated a commercial or industrial Opportunity Area to allow it to do that.

That assertion is confusing, as the Airport is federally regulated transportation infrastructure. The Airport doesn’t need City zoning or permission. It can, within its federal jurisdiction, do whatever it wants with its 400 acres of excess land. It seems this isn’t a matter of the City ‘allowing’ the Airport to do anything.

Instead, I fear the Airport’s desire to be designated an Opportunity Area has more to do with the specific infrastructure and investment benefits that come with that designation. Infrastructure and investments that would be paid for by Saint John taxpayers. This fear is confirmed by a draft planning document produced by the Airport in June 2010, in which it said one component of its strategy must be: Working with the City of Saint John to achieve connection of the airport site to the City’s water and sewage distribution system. I think the Airport wants to be an Opportunity Area because the City would then be obligated to pay for the delivery of municipal services to the Airport.

That isn’t a trivial ask. The cost of running water, sewer and storm lines out to the Airport would be ballpark $20 million or higher. Yet Leblanc insists the Airport isn’t looking for any money from the City. Either Leblanc doesn’t understand what it is he’s asking for, or he’s hoping we don’t.

There’s no argument about the importance of the Airport. It’s crucial, and we’re far better off having one in this region. Hard decisions are likely going to be needed – by both the City of Saint John and other regional municipalities – about what types of investment to make in the Airport. But that clearly falls outside the scope of PlanSJ. The Airport requires a coordinated, regional strategy that brings together all its partners. The days of Saint John taxpayers fronting the bills for people in the burbs are over.

The Airport needs to develop a business plan to ensure its sustainability, and it needs to seek out support throughout its catchment area and from all levels of government. It also needs to be clear with partners and taxpayers about exactly what it’s asking for.

Nov 10

American Iron and the Lower West Side

I attended the presentation and open house that American Iron and Metals (AIM) hosted in the Lower West Side on Tuesday evening. AIM is proposing an enhancement of its metal recycling facility on the Port of Saint John lands on the west side of the Harbour, and is entering the permitting phase of development.


I have to commend the AIM representative for the quality of his presentation, particularly given the challenging environment of the Carleton Community Centre. The presentation addressed all the questions I had in mind when I arrived, and the representative and his associates seemed equipped to answer most of the questions asked of him by the audience.

I also have to commend the citizens who came out. It was a viciously windy, rainy night but the turnout was good. And the audience was respectful. There were mixed perspectives in the room but for the most part things remained civil and constructive. (Mostly.) The physical space and noise level was frustrating for many, yet people stuck it out to the end.

With respect to the proposed expansion, I’m not sure what to think. The facility is basically a metal shredder used to reduce cars, fridges and other large items into small pieces of metal that can then be shipped off to be re-used in new products. At first blush that doesn’t sound like a good thing to have right beside a residential neighbourhood. Personally, I like industrial spaces and I’m realistic about noise in an industrial city. (In fact, I love the sounds of the trains being shuttled down the street from my house.) But I’ve heard a car shredder before and there’s no way I’d want to be living anywhere near one. I’m very sympathetic to the residents of Lower West who are concerned about this proposal. Especially those close to Market Place, only a couple of hundred metres from the site.

On the other hand, the Port has been an industrial space for a very long time … longer in fact than that part of Lower West has been residential. And there’s already a metal shredder in operation at that site, first commissioned in 2002.

Furthermore, if you trust in AIM’s engineering assessments, the design of the upgraded facility will produce the same noise level as the current facility — while providing 23 additional jobs. I have trouble imagining how that can be, but then, I don’t know how loud the current operation is.

It’s also important that we don’t say no to business outright in this city. While we need to be a lot more careful about the types of business we promote, Saint John must remain ‘open for business’. Not blindly open, but open.

The audience the other night was mixed. A couple of people spoke out strongly for and against the proposal. Some simply had questions about environmental protection, jobs, hours of operation, and AIM’s somewhat questionable assertion that having a metal shredder in one’s neighbourhood would actually increase property values.

The AIM representative addressed the proximity to residential, noting that only one other of its facilities has similar residential proximity. That proximity does seem like an obvious problem, particularly given the topography — with much of Lower West looking down into the Port property, not just sitting alongside it.

But the fact is, Lower West is already colocated with an industrial park. And here’s where PlanSJ comes in. The PlanSJ process has led to a vision of enhanced residential development in the Lower West Side. PlanSJ calls it a residential ‘urban opportunity area’ (see the red blob in the slightly out of date PlanSJ map below).

Option 1

Becoming an opportunity area would mean that the neighbourhood would benefit from incentives and zoning criteria to promote appropriate infill with quality housing, greater investment in infrastructure, strategic promotion of local retail/commercial to create a ‘ complete community’, and so forth. In effect, the City would spend a lot of time and money to try to restore Lower West as a complete and vibrant neighbourhood.

That effort may be fruitless if at the same time the Port is transforming itself into an industrial park for heavy industry.

The challenge here is larger than whether to accept this specific proposal; at some point very soon the City and the Port are going to have to strike a balance between the desire of the Port to find new sources of revenue, and Saint Johners’ vision for the Lower West Side.

This city was founded on its port, and any reasonable vision of this city’s future will continue to include a working port. But is the Port’s vision for its future consistent with Saint Johners’ vision for their city? A Port that has transformed itself into a heavy industrial park that just happens to be beside the water is going to cripple this city’s ability to achieve any kind of urban transformation.

The issue isn’t just in the Lower West Side. We can expect to see more of this type of usage conflict throughout the Port lands, east and west.

The Port is under federal jurisdiction, so the City’s options as a municipality to influence these types of developments are limited. It’s important that the City and Port work together to achieve a compromise both can accept, but the motivation to drive that compromise will probably have to come from citizens themselves. Regardless of what happens with this AIM proposal, I think we’re seeing just the beginning of a much larger challenge for this region. Saint Johners will need to be vocal with both their City and their federal representatives to protect a balance of interest between Saint John as a working port and Saint John as a place where someone would want to live.