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.

 

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