Lessons Learned: Navigating the Highs and the Lows


A telling example of effective urban guerrilla tactics came about as a result of an unsuccessful bid to get the Community Planning Association (CPA) involved against the Atlantic Place project. An "old boys'" organization, the CPA did little else except to hold an Annual General Meeting where they re-elected one another. Members of the People's Planning Program took out memberships in the CPA, stormed the AGM, ousted the old board, and gained control of the Association and their bank account.

Another example of activist innovation involved young members of the artist-run Resource Centre for the Arts, who produced larger-than-life sized puppet heads that included effigies of the Mayor and the Atlantic Place developer and who stormed meetings at City Hall. This action roused the media, which focused public attention beneficially and expanded the constituency of concern.

Building Momentum: A Regulatory Framework and Resources

Shannie knew that in order to stand up to ongoing development pressure and guide good changes in the historic areas of the city, a regulatory framework would be needed, and this must be based on designation of core areas as a Heritage District.

Using her strategic thinking to "sort though what needed to happen and how to get there," Shannie discerned that people of influence would be needed to accomplish this. She learned that everyone had their own circle of influence so access to someone who was not in your immediate circle could be achieved by another who might be able to open that door.

At the time, Heritage Canada developed an initiative to undertake three demonstration projects across Canada as a way to establish a heritage conservation program. Shannie organized a Heritage Board meeting in St. John's and arranged for the Newfoundland Historic Trust to deliver a presentation promoting an area of downtown for one of the selected demonstration sites.

To resource this venture, she obtained a grant from the Labatt Breweries Foundation Community Fund and persuaded a sympathetic architectural firm to donate a series of large display panels which superimposed miniature line drawings done by a local artist of the city's principal heritage buildings on a map of the historic downtown area. This display was in City Hall, where the City would host a reception for the visiting Board members.

The positive interaction created by this event between Council members, the Heritage Board, and invited community notables helped create an environment in which the proposal to include St. John's as one of the selected cities was accepted by Heritage Canada.

Although this would bring many significant benefits, including the funding for a conservation area plan, the conditions were "stiff" and included matched funding at municipal and provincial levels for the study as well as the operating funding grant. The City must also designate a proposed Heritage Conservation Area, approve a Heritage Bylaw and regulations, and establish a separate Foundation headed by a leading business figure and with strong business representation.

Shannie leveraged matched funds from the City and with the help of her friend and neighbour John Crosbie (then Finance Minister), got a commitment from the province. Eventually, with Crosbie's support, matched operational funding from the province followed suit.

The study involved extensive public consultation and when completed, "a fantastic document, well researched, beautifully presented and solid in its conclusions" that could be used when making presentations to City Council and the Province. The City adopted the report, designated the area, and developed the by-laws and regulations.

Shannie was instrumental in meeting the challenge of setting up a separate foundation, using her networks to persuade business owners to come on board and soon the Foundation could hire an excellent executive director.

The St. John's Heritage Foundation was subsequently successful in rehabilitating two commercial structures for adaptive reuse, one of which was sold and revenue put into other properties, the second kept as a rental property that housed the Foundation's office. These projects were "show and tell" to dramatically demonstrate the feasibility of heritage-sensitive rehabilitation for adaptive reuse.

Residential Heritage Progress

Twenty-three of more than 40 abandoned homes were purchased, including Victorian structures and turn-of-the-century properties, renovated with care, and brought up to modern code standards. These properties were resold when they were renovated and the proceeds invested in the Heritage Foundation's revolving fund. The net effect was to help stabilize the residential core of the downtown. These projects demonstrated visibly how preserving architectural features of a home could increase both attractiveness and value.

When the five year demonstration project ended, the Province created a Provincial Heritage Foundation and transferred its funding support to that body, so the St. John's Foundation folded – but it had done its work. Millions of dollars in private funding have since been invested in downtown residential properties in an area protected by the City's development regulation, and renovations are now overseen by a city-appointed Heritage Advisory Committee.

Public Education

Shannie noted that the community support base for appropriate development is small but sturdy, and that broader support is created when people take ownership of issues. For activists, this entails building awareness incrementally and continuously.

Public consultation requirements are mandated in a good municipal plan and can be an ongoing public education tool. Because the nuts and bolts of planning can be boring, people tend to turn on when the issues affect them personally, so citizen-driven Neighbourhood Improvement Plans are effective and empowering for participants and remind those in authority that cities must be shaped by those who live in them.

Affordable Housing

Shannie became involved in a non-profit housing program initiative that was cost-shared by the federal and provincial governments and managed by the city. This was an opportunity to strengthen the earlier efforts to revitalize older city neighbourhoods by infilling empty spaces left by demolitions and replacing abandoned and dilapidated homes.

The concern was to maintain a mix of incomes in the downtown as a hedge against gentrification that occurs if rehabilitation is totally heritage-focused. The city hired the same architectural firm that had produced the Heritage Area Plan to design the new infill housing to strengthen the heritage character of the neighbourhoods. Over 450 units were built over the next 15 years, making a solid contribution to the social fabric of older parts of the city and helping to maintain the streetscapes that gave the city its heritage character.

Shannie ran successfully for a seat on the Board of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and in her position, was appointed to a Joint Task Force on Housing that gave her "better tools for affordable housing issues".