New fences planned around stalled Saint John construction site

The developer of the stalled 99 King St. construction project is adding new fencing and screens as he hopes to get the project off the ground.

The site of the former Woolworths building has sat empty since it was demolished in June 2021, with plans pivoting from mixed residential and office space to a full residential building. Saint John's growth committee heard an update on the project Monday after council received a letter from resident Adam Pottle saying wire mesh fences and "tattered signage" around the perimeter are unsafe.

At the meeting, Christopher McKiel, the city's director of development and community standards, told committee members that developer Percy Wilbur has agreed to renew the fencing and screens at the site due to "aesthetic and safety" concerns. McKiel said he appreciated the "patience and understanding" from the community.

"We continue to support the development at 99 King St. and fully support the community's concerns regarding the current state of the site," McKiel said. "The process has been slower than anticipated and there are a variety of factors involved, including the challenging economic environment."

Deputy mayor John MacKenzie called it "unfortunate," and said at the meeting he appreciates the repairs, saying the site can't be accessible or visible.

"We want this project to go ahead. But at the same time, it can't be an eyesore any longer," he told Brunswick News. "They've got to fix it up and prevent people from being able to access it and see that ugly hole."

Wilbur said Monday that the installation of new fencing would start Wednesday. He said the cost of filling in the site would be north of $500,000 and would only "add to the burden" on the project.

"I can appreciate that it's an eyesore," Wilbur said. "It was never my intention to tear down one eyesore to create another one. I'm working exclusively on this project to move it forward."

The city provided an update Monday on 99 King St. after a letter from a resident complained about wire fencing and 'tattered signage' around the stalled build site.

Wilbur bought the 99 King St. property, which had been vacant since 2010, for $900,000 in November 2020 and the 81 King Street property for $500,00 in January.

Brunswick News reported in 2023 that Wilbur had been in talks to bring in an anchor office tenant that fizzled when the region's existing economic development agencies were merged into Envision Saint John. Wilbur said the project became a strictly residential build, with ground-floor retail.

Since then, labour costs, labour shortages, interest rates and increases in material costs have made it a "completely new game." He said the city has been cooperative and has offered incentives "to help move housing projects forward," as has the federal government, through a waiver of the federal portion of the HST. He said he wants "provincial help" when it comes to the provincial portion of the HST.

Wilbur said if the province moved on the HST, they could "start immediately," and said they're hoping to start construction this year. He said the province earns property tax on the project either way, but they'd make more money if it were built.

The province's department of housing and social development referred a request for comment to the department of finance. Brunswick News is awaiting a response.

MacKenzie said a PST waiver "would help a lot" if it was something the province decided to look at.

"Anything that we as a government or any level of government can do to help out right now would be very helpful, appreciated, right?" he said. "Those startup costs are huge and they're preventing a lot of projects from actually happening."

Regarding delays at 99 King, MacKenzie said they're watching the scenario regarding Wilbur's discussions around financing with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Wilbur confirmed the application is ongoing.

"It's coming along well, we certainly have some options there," Wilbur said.

MacKenzie said it's "too early to tell" whether there's a deadline from the city's perspective to get the project moving.

"As long as the (CMHC) grants are still on the table and they're talking, you don't want to put up a roadblock on it," he said. "At the same time, we're going to go ahead with our project, and I'm hoping they're going to start that project, hopefully the summer."

The city is looking to pedestrianize South Market Street, which runs between the proposed project and the City Market, as part of street reconstruction in the area.

Saint John CAO Brent McGovern told Brunswick News earlier this month the city is responsible for part of the street, with Wilbur responsible for the rest.

Wilbur said Monday that the city's work and his project don't affect each other and that work on his portion of the street would not take place until construction.

The letter from Pottle had also brought up concerns regarding the barricaded right-turn lane on Charlotte Street. McKiel said the right-turn lane is not coming back, as street reconstruction plans for the area include bike lanes to forward the city's transportation goals.

With files from Emma McPhee

Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal