American Iron and the Lower West Side

Note: My comments in this blog regarding PlanSJ are mine alone as a citizen and Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) member, and are not intended to represent the views of the CAC as a whole.

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.

(See http://www.sjmetalrecycle.com.)

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.

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