Saint John Board of Trade input disappointing

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 was very disappointed to read the Saint John Board of Trade’s response last week to the latest round of PlanSJ consultations. (See the letter their website.)

Essentially, I read the Board’s letter as expressing the following criticisms:

  1. Regional focus good, Saint John focus bad.
  2. Build an economic development plan rather than a municipal plan.
  3. Focus on industrial land use as well as residential land use.
  4. Resistance to the very idea of municipal planning.

While there may be some merit to item 3, and that’s worth discussing to ensure that it’s more clearly addressed down the road, the overall Board of Trade position is that the very basis of PlanSJ is wrong. That simply isn’t credible, and the Board has provided no sound basis for their criticisms.

Key points

Projections vs. goals

The Board of Trade seems to misunderstand the difference between goals and projections.

Realistic population projections are essential to any urban planning exercise. (The 1973 plan failed catastrophically because of overly optimistic population projections.)

In our case, the population projection sets the lower bound of the envelope within which the plan remains valid. Since in our situation there is no realistic upper bound to population that would challenge the plan, we only care about the lower bound. Hence our numbers may appear ‘pessimistic’ to some. In fact, they’re realistic and based on methodologies and research that Urban Strategies applied using established urban planning practices.

The Board of Trade can have all sorts of optimistic goals, goals which should drive its plans to promote business in this region. The City also has goals towards which it works in accordance with the values and priorities of the citizens of the City of Saint John. Goals are just that – ideals (hopefully realistic) to work towards. However, the attainment of goals cannot be guaranteed. (Let’s recall the train wreck of the Benefits Blueprint.)

Thus, goals cannot be the sole basis of a plan – unless you’re planning for failure. The municipal plan must be based on realistic estimations of near-future population growth and not the Board’s hopes and dreams.

If the Board has a basis to justify an increase in the lower bound being used for the plan, I’d like to hear it. If they have some substantive argument for more ‘optimistic’ numbers, they should make the case for that, in detail, providing evidence. I’m very disappointed by the motivational language that PlanSJ has received from them to date. It might play well with their membership or with the public but it doesn’t provide any basis for a change in our methodology.

Defined opportunity areas

The Board of Trade is rejecting the very idea of defined opportunity areas (page 3 of their letter, item 1). Instead, their letter appears to propose that we continue on with the status quo while providing incentives to achieve ‘higher density development’ in urban, suburban and rural areas. I’m not even sure what they mean by that, as it appears to be self-contradictory.

I’m confused about why they even care about defined opportunity areas. Such areas appear to benefit local businesses by providing a growth medium in which businesses can thrive by meeting the needs of small, complete neighbourhoods. The Board’s position is that the use of defined opportunity areas could actually reduce urban density. (See page 3, item 1, para 2.) I cannot imagine how that would be true.

Boundaries and growth

The Board is ignoring the oft-stated fact that while defined areas must inevitably have boundaries, those boundaries are gradients and not ‘walls’, and development can occur outside opportunity areas (with conditions, obviously, to offset or prevent burdens on taxpayers). (See page 3, item 1, paras 1-2.)

Rejection of the very idea of urban planning

The Board apparently does not understand the nature of planning and zoning. (Bottom of page 3, in case anyone misses this whopper.) Zoning – telling developers where and what they’re allowed to build, and people where they can live – is a universal practice. It isn’t something new to PlanSJ. Is the Board of Trade really arguing against zoning? Or are they arguing against urban planning in general?

A municipal plan is not a regional economic development plan

The Board apparently does not understand the difference between a municipal plan and a regional economic development plan. Much of what they’re talking about falls into an economic development strategy. That’s not what PlanSJ is meant to be. The Board of Trade should be looking to Enterprise Saint John to drive economic development regionally, with the burden of that development also shared regionally.

Airport and port

The Board’s argument for prioritization of the airport and port (both regional assets) is not within the scope of the municipal plan. I’m against ‘hotwiring’ the plan to serve arbitrary, specific interests. The City is littered with assets and enterprises that could be considered critical, and if we start assigning arbitrary designations outside the underlying logic of the plan there could be no end to it, leaving the plan essentially meaningless. I think it’s worth looking at the criteria used in the plan to identify industrial zones, in order to ensure that they’re fully rationalized, but I’m against arbitrary designations outside those criteria.

Specifically with regard to the airport and port, any ‘special consideration’ should be exercised by Council outside the scope of the municipal plan itself, whether that consideration takes the form of pipes or dollars. Particularly in the case the airport and port, the benefits those facilities offer are regional and not municipal; any investment or support should also be regional in nature, and the costs of promoting that shared infrastructure should be shared across municipalities and levels of government.

Regional approach

Finally, and most importantly, the Board’s insistence that we take a regional approach to this planning effort is simply ludicrous, and seems to betray a real lack of depth in their consideration of PlanSJ and their understanding of the issues.

Trying to accommodate regional interests solely within Saint John’s municipal planning would be difficult to impossible at this point. Such an effort to define a regional land use plan would require the active collaboration of all the region’s municipalities, and we know that’s not going to happen.

Even if other muncipalities were interested in regional land use planning, it’s been pointed out to me that Saint John wouldn’t have a legal basis for doing what the Board of Trade has suggested. A municipal plan is a legal, binding document and Saint John has no jurisdiction to plan outside its current legal boundaries.

Regardless of the legalities, the fact is, Saint Johners don’t want to continue bearing the burden alone for regional prosperity. Compromising Saint John’s municipal planning goals to optimize regional interests isn’t fair to Saint Johners, and most would be very angry at the suggestion that their quality of life should be ‘leveraged’ for regional interests.

If and when amalgamation eventually takes place, the region will be operating under a new reality that will require new planning. If the Board’s vision of a desirable future is one in which Greater Saint John is managed on a regional basis, they should be lobbying the Government of New Brunswick to attain that goal.

In the meantime, PlanSJ must remain focused on the goals and challenges faced by Saint John as it is currently defined. It would be highly irresponsible of us to do otherwise. It is very important that PlanSJ not be perceived by our citizens to be compromising local interests for regional ones.

General concerns about the Board of Trade

I have more general concerns about how PlanSJ should disposition feedback from the Board of Trade and other entities that do not necessarily represent the best interests of Saint John citizens. For one thing, the Board of Trade is inherently a regional body. Their inputs have value, but not necessarily face value.

How we try to de-bias or interpret that input is a complex issue. It isn’t just a matter of coming up with a methodology; it’s also a challenge to explain this to Saint John citizens who may be concerned about undue influence by business interests. Saint John has had a long history of business interests co-opting public interest. People are watching for that, and we have to be able to demonstrate the fairness and integrity of the process.

In closing

  • I’m glad the Board of Trade has finally begun to participate in this process.
  • The PlanSJ team values the viewpoints of all our stakeholders as we work together to improve quality of life and sustainability in the City of Saint John.
  • The Board of Trade must recognize that PlanSJ is designed to serve the interests of Saint Johners first. While business interests are important to the future of this region, Saint John’s 68 000 citizens need liveable communities and a sustainable city. We won’t compromise on that focus.
  • PlanSJ is a municipal development plan, and not a regional economic plan. The Board of Trade should pursue Enterprise Saint John to find new ways to foster economic development in the region and to develop a regional economic development strategy. That economic development plan needs to accommodate a new reality:

§  If there is to be a regional approach to economic development, that regional approach needs to accommodate the vision of the residents of Saint John (not the other way around).

§  Saint Johners don’t want a future where Saint John exists primarily as an industrial zone to promote wealth generation in other outlying communities.

§  That means other communities need to share the burden of economic development, rather than simply reaping the benefits.

§  It means that any regional economic planning, and the Board of Trade, must accept the priorities that Saint Johners have expressed for their city through the PlanSJ process.

§  The Board of Trade should be working with Enterprise Saint John and all the region’s municipalities to attain regional goals that accommodate municipal priorities rather than trying to prescribe them.

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