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Atlantic Business Magazine
March, 2006

Downtown Dilemma

Charlottetown residents have certain notions about their tiny capital city, not the least of which is that its narrow, friendly streets, lacking in large developments, help attract tourism. So last fall when local developer APM Group announced it wanted to build its new $8-million headquarters on the waterfront, a huge debate erupted over the currently vacant land. People wrote in to the local paper criticising the design of the proposed building, the local planning board rejected APM’s attempt to have the land rezoned and over at Peter Rukavina’s blog - a favoured virtual watering hole of island residents - people posted 50 comments for and against the structure.

APM’s president, Tim Banks - a familiar sight locally with his trademark black-framed, square glasses - doesn’t have too much to say about the whole fiasco. APM withdrew the building application before it hit city council and Banks says they won’t submit it again until the city gives them some concessions. For her part, city councillor Kim Devine, who is also head of the planning board, says that if council had allowed the rezoning they wouldn’t have had any say over the building’s design. “I think people in the city have very strong feelings about the waterfront and what goes up there.”

That might be an understatement. After the planning board rejected APM’s application, Banks wrote a letter to Charlottetown’s mayor calling for Devine’s removal from the board because of her “obstructionist attitude.” The Charlottetown Guardian, a daily paper, obtained a copy of the letter and printed it, setting off the latest argument over the future of the tidy city’s downtown.

To listen to Banks and Devine talk, the sense is that both want the same thing. The developer and the councillor both speak about cooperation and growth. But that’s where the similarity ends. APM searches out economic opportunity, regardless of whether it’s in the city core or the outskirts. For every project the developer has proposed for downtown - and not too darn many have passed approval - it builds one outside, often big box developments which end up contributing to the core’s current moribund retail environment.

“We’re a developer and we seek out opportunity and we’ve been banging our heads against the wall in downtown Charlottetown for some time,’’ Banks says. He points to the three years it took him to get a development permit for a $10-million condo project that recently broke ground. Banks says economic growth has marked Atlantic Canada’s last seven years with Halifax, Moncton and Fredericton all sprouting new buildings, but not Charlottetown. “There’s no significant private investment being done in Charlottetown.”

Devine, an energetic, red-haired woman with a quick smile, came to council two years ago after sitting as a citizen on the city’s planning board. She ended up on the board after organizing neighbourhood meetings about noise from the bars coming from Peakes Quay. When Clifford Lee vacated his seat to run for Mayor, Devine went for it. “One of Charlottetown’s really special features is the human scale of the city,’’ she says. “I think people feel really comfortable when they’re walking around neighbourhoods and cities have that really nice scale to them. That’s what makes a really attractive city.”

When Devine talks about Charlottetown’s growth, she envisions attractive residential neighbourhoods, a healthy downtown core, a lively arts scene and a well-designed historic core with strong tourist appeal. To make this happen, Devine says the city needs to pay attention to “quality of life” issues such as safe streets, nearby schools and churches and must work toward economic development while preserving the historic essence of the core. Devine says she’s not against development, but adds: “I think there are others who would characterize me as that. I think what we have to look at is development that is appropriate for the city.”

The bylaws aimed at preserving the historic character of the city are the same ones Banks complains are hindering development. Banks contends that the current density bylaws can’t accommodate enough condo units to make developments feasible. But even if they did, it’s not certain how welcoming downtown residents are of larger-scale buildings. After city council relented and gave him approval for an additional number of units for the $10-million condo building Banks is erecting downtown, residents went to the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission to try and stop construction.

Now Banks is trying a different approach. He’s joined the board of Downtown Charlottetown Inc., the local booster agency for the core, and is selling off all his investments in the city. “I’ll go back in there and I’ll give them what advice I can,” he says. “They can listen or they can take what they want, but at least I won’t be sitting at the table with my own interests at stake.”

For her part, Devine says she’s as determined as ever to attract residents to the city’s core. She cites a statistic saying residents outspend office workers five to one downtown. “I think one way we can revitalize the city is by making sure it’s a place where they want to live, where they want to raise their families, where they want to come and walk to a coffee shop - do all those things that people do in cities.”

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