“SAINT JOHN – A long-held vision to redevelop Main Street from a tired, six-lane “eyesore” to a vibrant corridor with condominiums, shops and a view of the harbour could become reality if the province adopts changes to what is now a provincially designated highway.
A group of politicians and residents have met with government officials to push the proposal forward, which could also include an innovative funding scheme that could help municipalities across the province.
“Right now it’s a terrible waste of land – valuable land,” said Coun. John MacKenzie, who got Common Council’s support on the proposal earlier this year. “Land that, when you build up, could look over the harbour.
MacKenzie said the Main Street corridor – which is more like a highway between uptown to the old north end – was built for a population expected to grow well beyond 200,000 residents. “But we don’t have that. We have like 70,000,” he said.
Now, MacKenzie and a few other community leaders have met with the provincial Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to launch a process that, if successful, could result in redevelopment within three years.
Main Street is now part of Route 100, a provincially designated highway that runs through the city on streets including Rothesay Avenue and Chesley Drive. So any changes require approval from the province, said Morgan Lanigan, an architectural technologist who first pitched the idea of a reconfigured Main Street a few months ago.
“With the original change to a six-lane freeway, the old north end was essentially severed from the rest of the city,” he said. “There’s a giant gap there and like any vital organ in your body, it needs blood. It needs oxygen. The way to do that is to essentially turn Main Street back the way it was 40 years ago.”
The idea is to reduce the number of lanes that make up Main Street to make way for new development. At the same time, Lanigan wants to see east and westbound traffic re-routed to Paradise Row and Hilyard Street. Traffic could be slowed down by a large intersection or roundabout across the viaduct from uptown.
Lanigan said initial reactions from provincial officials indicate they agree with initiatives that “make sense.” If the province was open to the idea, traffic and engineering studies would need to take place, which could take up to two years, he said.
With the realities of tight infrastructure budgets, Lanigan has come up with a “groundbreaking” financing scheme that would require legislative changes.
The plan, known as tax increment financing, would allow the city to get a loan based on future tax gains.
“I think we could free up five, 10 or 15 acres of developable land,” he said. “Just transferring ownership to a private entity rather than it being in the city’s or province’s ownership, you’d be new generating tax revenue immediately.”
In effect, he said Main Street would be a “self-financing” project, providing everything the neighbourhood needs, including better pedestrian access, homes, barber shops and small restaurants.
Carl Killen, the Conservative MLA for Saint John Harbour, is also involved in the initiative, not just as a politician, but as a Saint Johner who grew up on Main Street North.
“It’s always been an eye-sore and a threat to pedestrians,” he said of the expanded six-lane thoroughfare, which was built when he was a youngster. “So if there’s a way to redevelop the street and realign streets so the provincial roads connect and make more sense than it does now, and you’re able to make a part of the city that is laying dormant in many ways more viable both residentially, commercially and just generally speaking for people, how is that a bad thing?”
Killen said the north end has gone through tremendous changes since he grew up at 227 Main St. at the corner of Durham Street, at what is now a vacant lot in a neighbourhood filled with dilapidated buildings. But he believes the area holds a lot of promise.
“I don’t even know what that would look like, but I just know that anywhere you go in the world… there is an appeal of having that harbour view,” he said. “To have Main Street with Fort Howe in the background, which is itself quite beautiful, there is a lot to be said for the old north end.”