Luxury home ruffles feathers

Chris Brookes lives in the heart of the Battery in St. John's, where bright fishing sheds, winding roads and hidden footpaths make it one of Newfoundland's most beloved coastlines.

National Geographic used images of the iconic area when it named St. John's one of the world's top 10 oceanfront cities in 2015.

Small houses evoke its centuries-old history as a fishing village. They're a crucial part of a charming and also lucrative tourism draw, Brookes said. But a short walk from his place, plans for an outsized luxury home to be built by a scion of one of the province's most prominent families are raising alarms about what he calls "architectural creep."

"I don't want to see these things marching downhill," he said of concerns that sprawling developments will move further into the heritage enclave where hikers flock from around the globe.

"If it happens where we are, I for one am going to fight it because we don't have any castles here. We haven't had any monster houses and I think we have to be vigilant to make sure there aren't any out here."

At issue is construction of a private residence to start this spring at the western edge of the Battery overlooking the harbour. A development application filed with the city says Craig and Lisa Dobbin will knock down three "semi-derelict" houses bought in 2016 to make way for their new three-bedroom home.

The late Craig Dobbin Sr. built a global helicopter company from scratch and is one of the province's legendary business success stories. His son's house will cover 378 square metres or 4,200 square feet. With the garage and basement included, the total is 610 square metres or 6,780 square feet

St. John's City Council voted 8-3 in December to approve the project despite concerns raised by its own heritage experts and the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust. It noted the new house footprint will be five times that of an average Battery home.

Trust board member Emily Wolf said it's a unique community, where colourful clusters of wooden houses follow the rocky landscape.

"It's higgledy-piggledy," she said in an interview. "It's not linear. It's not on a grid.

"Our hope was that the proposal could respond in a way that's modern and contemporary, but could respond to the conditions that define the neighbourhood historically."

Wolf said the board was pleased the city at least consulted its heritage advisers, and that the Dobbins have agreed to restore and preserve a fourth house they purchased.

Architect Philip Pratt, who designed the new home, said opposition to it is beyond the pale.

"This thing has gotten way out of hand," he said in an interview. "It's a three-bedroom house, 4,000 square feet — not particularly large," when compared to other homes in the immediate area below the former Battery Hotel, which is now a campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Walls of windows and subtle colours will blend in with the hillside, Pratt said.

"The character of the Battery that everyone is thinking about, the quaint little houses, don't exist in that area."

Still, they're close enough that Maggie Burton, one of the three dissenting city councillors, is calling for stronger heritage protections.

"Trading a cluster of small houses for one big house is not in keeping with the character and the spirit of the Battery development guidelines," she said in an interview. "If you made that trade throughout the Battery, there would be nothing left of the character of that area of our city."

Other councillors supported the project because they liked the look of the house, she said: "That's a very subjective thing."

Burton said a lack of strong design and other guidelines for heritage districts has allowed outsized houses in one of the city's other jewels — the Quidi Vidi fishing village. Its soaring cliffs, colourful dories and snug harbour attract thousands of visitors a year.

St. John's should have a heritage bylaw backed with the power to enforce design, demolition and new development decisions, Burton believes.

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