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Rockwood Park again being considered for development, Saint John council facing pushback

The City of Saint John is again declaring a parcel of Rockwood Park land at 1671 Sandy Point Rd. as surplus. Residents aren't any happier about it this time around. (Connell Smith, CBC - image credit)
The City of Saint John is again declaring a parcel of Rockwood Park land at 1671 Sandy Point Rd. as surplus. Residents aren't any happier about it this time around. (Connell Smith, CBC - image credit)

Joan Pearce of Friends of Rockwood Park says Saint John should look elsewhere to address its housing needs.

"There seems to be a dedicated effort on the part of the city to take pieces of the park and offer them up for sale — it's a case of whittling away at the park," Pearce told Information Morning Saint John Tuesday.

Council passed a motion Feb. 20 to declare 1671 Sandy Point Rd. surplus property.

This is the third time the land has been considered for development — with public outcry both of the previous times. The last time was in 2018.

The land on Sandy Point Road is one of five properties being considered for development again and the city has already received multiple letters in opposition.

The city wants to declare this five-hectare property, highlighted in green, surplus so it can be sold and used for housng.
The city wants to declare this five-hectare property, highlighted in green, surplus so it can be sold and used for housng.

The city wants to declare this five-hectare property, highlighted in green, surplus so it can be sold and used for housng. (Province of New Brunswick)

"It just doesn't make sense that you have this wonderful park advertised by Parks and Recreation as being a gem in the city, and you start to whittle away at it," she said.

Pearce said there are also "environmental impacts" to consider.

If the plan goes ahead, she said the result will be a much smaller area for public use and a reduction in the wildlife activity in the park.

'Housing is our number one,' says mayor

Mayor Donna Reardon says the decision to declare the land surplus came down to need for housing — a need she describes as "desperate."

"We have a vacancy rate of almost zero here in Saint John. So it's great if you have a house, but what about people that don't have housing?" Reardon said.

"We say we need workers here, but where do we house workers? We want students. Where do students live? So we're looking at everything to provide housing. Housing is our number one."

Reardon said area desirability was also a factor.

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon says that the city has a housing vacancy rate of almost zero - that the city needs workers and wants students but has nowhere to house them.
Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon says that the city has a housing vacancy rate of almost zero - that the city needs workers and wants students but has nowhere to house them.

With a vacancy rate of almost zero, Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon says the city needs workers and wants students, but has nowhere to house them. (Graham Thompson/CBC News)

"The city was looking at what we have for properties that's a desirable area," Reardon told Information Morning Saint John.

"Saint John is interesting from the perspective of geology. We have a lot of rock here."

But that makes it difficult for development in the city, she said.

"So when we took a look at what we have and we know where things could go and what would be desirable areas to live in, there were a few places and we put those places out to declare them as surplus."

Pearce, however, says there are other areas that could be considered.

"There are all kinds of places already right across the street. There's Fieldstone Estates. There are places to build houses there," she said.

"The hole in King's Square, for instance … you develop places like that first before you start to take away park land."

In response to that, Reardon said Rockwood Park "started out as 230 acres."

"That's what it was originally and it's been added on to, and the Horticultural Association accumulated lands up to about 500 acres…so that 500 acres can never be touched," she said.

Process lacked discussion, explanation, says Pearce

Pearce said the process to declare the land surplus lacked transparency.

"This motion came out of the city, out of committee of the whole and it went straight into open council and a vote," she said.

"There was no discussion. There was nothing to indicate why the city considered this to be surplus. No explanation about what surplus land actually means."

Joan Pearce of the group Friends of Rockwood Park worries the city's "whittling away" at park land will lead to a reduction of park space for public and wildlife use.
Joan Pearce of the group Friends of Rockwood Park worries the city's "whittling away" at park land will lead to a reduction of park space for public and wildlife use.

Joan Pearce of the group Friends of Rockwood Park worries the city's 'whittling away' at park land will lead to a reduction of park space for public and wildlife use. (CBC )

Reardon said the Ernst and Young report, an operational review in 2020 that determined the value of the land, was made public.

"Land, legal and labour is always done in closed if we declare it's surplus property," Reardon said.

"From there forward you have to have obviously a transparent process — request for expression of interest, you get public feedback on it, etc. So it's just the way that land, legal and labour works in the city closed session."

Reconciling housing need with development concerns

Reardon said the next step is to see if there's any interest in the property and, following that, there would be a "matrix" to decide the best use of the land.

"You would have the city, you would have Envision Saint John involved in that. You would look at your strategic plan, you would look at your affordable-housing action plan, you would look at the Housing Accelerator Fund," she said.

"You would look at all of those plans and you would try to see if you have anything that has come forward that would fit and be reasonable to go forward and support those plans."

She said it may not include "affordable housing," but that all new housing helps create a domino effect.

"You need a healthy vacancy rate. The one we have now is not good because it drives housing to be more of a commodity at this stage because we don't have enough of it," Reardon said.

"So how do I reconcile that with not wanting to have your backyard developed? It is tricky."