Is St. John's Missing Its Middle?

Posted by Brandon Copeland

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For the past century, cities have been building themselves differently than they have for most of the history of civilization. It seems that with the rise of industrialization, planners and developers started to feel like things should be separated. This isn’t an unreasonable thought – a factory billowing smoke will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the value of the residential property next door. We started separating our buildings and their uses through municipal zoning – a way to determine what is allowed to be built where. Departments of municipal governments would determine that commercial should go in one area, residential in another, and industrial in another still. As planning policy expanded, and neighbourhood differences were observed, so too were zoning types. Today, the City of St. John’s has 59 zoning types, according to a quick count of the Development Regulations.

The result, as we can observe when looking at our own city, is that many of our newer neighbourhoods have been intentionally separated. As an example, both Kelsey Drive and Stavanger Drive are very intentionally commercial hubs. Society has deliberately separated commerce from living areas, counter to how cities had historically been built for thousands of years. This became easy to do with the rise of the automobile, and overtime, has been normalized.

I discovered an article recently about “The Missing Middle” and I read the piece with the context of our city in mind. It discusses the unintended consequences of increasingly complex zoning regulations and intentional separation of uses. Creative ideas get stifled. As the article so eloquently puts it: “As time passed, regulations and review processes got more and more complex. […] These combined forces have effectively created the dilemma that advocates of missing middle housing describe: with systems so complex, uncertain and expensive to navigate, the logical development response is either a single-family house (which never gets denied) or a very large apartment or mixed-use building that is bull-dogged through the system by a team of lawyers or consultants.”

The argument seems to make sense. Historically, the buildings that would fall “in the middle” (between single family and large apartment) would typically be built by small investors, families, or individuals looking to house a business they run themselves. Today, any profitable return may not be worth the risk in our modern system if you aren’t intimately familiar with it. In today's regulatory environment, it is far simpler for an artist to rent a workshop in a commercial hub than for them to try and build a new home where they can live above their workspace. Too many questions arise in the later example. Is the workshop industrial? It might be based on required ventilation. If so, can it really go in a residential neighbourhood? Certainly not. Well can the residential go in an industrial neighbourhood? Probably less attractive (and possibly not allowed).

Does the theory of the Missing Middle hold up in St. John’s?

Start by Assessing our Residential

The previously linked article focuses on the missing middle of commercial development, but the concept stems from the idea of Missing Middle Housing. Residential projects such as multiplexes, stacked duplexes, and bungalow courtyards represent examples of less traditional housing options that can add density to otherwise boringly residential single-family neighbourhoods.

It’s worth noting that some of the Missing Middle Housing options ARE prominent in St. John’s. Townhouses, as an example, are listed as a housing type that is missing in many modern US neighbourhoods. As residents of St. John’s know, we have an abundance of this housing type, but note where our rowhouses are located. Our older neighbourhoods, built before modern zoning law was enforced. When exploring parts of St. John’s built in the past several decades, a dense area of modern rowhousing is unlikely to be spotted. Certainly not one that is within walking distance of quality commercial space.

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The market for residential housing of this style is the same market I have previously reflected on when talking about investment opportunity in St. John’s. To quote the website’s section on market demand, “singles, childless couples, and empty-nesters have two things in common: they are growing in number, and they want a unique type of home. Single-family homes located in conventional suburbs make up 90% of the current housing stock available in the United States, yet more and more, consumers are seeking non-single-family housing options that offer a walkable lifestyle.”

Millennials are a demographic we are rapidly losing in Newfoundland, and I wonder sometimes if the disconnect between lifestyle desired versus lifestyle offered in our city contributes to this. Empty-nesters, on the other hand, are a rapidly increasing proportion of our population. Perhaps alternate housing options could help retain the young we need, and house the older populations that we have.

How Small Business is Impacted by the Missing Middle

When talking about the struggle of small businesses, Kevin Klinkenberg (who wrote the article I mentioned at the beginning) talks about how we often attribute the decline of small businesses on high taxes, or not enough subsidies and support, or an increased reliance as society on big box stores and online shopping sites with headquarters in far-away cities. Klinkenberg points to the evolution of planning, however, as a significant culprit. Particularly, the idea that people simply aren’t building commercial spaces in newer residential neighbourhoods – often for zoning reasons. This creates high demand in historic commercial space (and subsequently high rents) which causes people to struggle to find a place to put their business in the dense urban core, or worse, set up and ultimately be unable to handle the cost of existence. Meanwhile, in commercial-exclusive neighbourhoods, it is unlikely that a small business could survive. How would you open an electronics store next to Best Buy? Or sell stationary near Staples? Generally, these areas are designed with major national and international retailers in mind, with exceptionally large lots built for parking and a very large footprint.

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Klinkenberg challenges us to think about small businesses and local character in our own community, while reflecting on four points.

1.     Affordability is very important for entrepreneurs and small businesses too. This essentially ties back to our first paragraph – we need to be building appropriate space in high-traffic areas for small businesses. If our only space are large big-box lots in areas zoned specifically for commercial, then we aren’t going to be doing the right thing to attract local ideas. It will be expensive to open in these areas, and subsequently suppress opportunity.

2.     We create artificial scarcity through NIMBYism and suburban-style zoning in urban areas. Not only are our zoning regulations hurting our small businesses, but the people who support these separations are contributing as well. Ever hear someone argue about the traffic-impacts of a neighbourhood daycare, or push against a retail use in a predominantly residential area? This contributes to the problem.

3.     Our modern-day views on urban neighbourhoods & development are historically inaccurate. Here, Klinkenberg talks about how commerce has for hundreds of years been intermixed with residential space, as opposed to being pushed away to commercial areas. Space would be easily adapted, and part of that ease would have to do with significantly less regulation. Economic downturn? Much simpler to adapt space into something else when you don’t have a year long approval process and ten sets of regulations you need to adhere to.

4.     We prevent the natural change / growth at our own peril. Klinkenberg’s final point is a simple one: “the restrictive approach of today detracts from what makes urban neighbourhoods so appealing – the local flavour and character. Because of that, it limits the value inherent in cities and urban neighbourhoods and hurts local economic development and equity efforts.”

The corner store. The corner pub. Upper and lower stories with varied uses. Small and creative projects. These are all things that happen in urban areas as opposed to suburban areas. Absolutely (and perhaps intentionally) these things make urban neighbourhoods far less controlled and far more messy. However, as Klinkenberg rightly states – these areas reflect the desires of two very different types of people, or customers, or consumers.

Next Steps to Recapture our Middle

Buried in yesterday’s budget comments from council, there was a quote from Councillor Dave Lane that gives me a lot of hope: “We must also begin to measure the price of sprawl and consider better aligning development fees with the impact that projects can have on the surrounding community,” Lane said.

This is a small first step to perhaps addressing our missing middle. The regulatory regime costs money to maintain, and that money is often captured through development fees. These fees are just one more hurdle for Missing Middle developments to overcome. By identifying areas that need revitalization and providing incentive for building there, hopefully creativity and new ideas can prosper.