Convent was first constructed in 1826


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One of the oldest buildings in St. John’s may be demolished as part of a plan to repurpose the property. Logy Bay-based Stonemount Enterprises Ltd. has submitted a proposal to St. John’s city council to rezone the land the former St. Micheal’s Convent and Belvedere Orphanage sits on near Bonaventure Avenue to allow for the potential construction of a 60-unit apartment building and townhouses. Council voted on Nov. 14 to consider the rezoning, which moves the proposal forward to a heritage and land use report stage, then public consultation. Since the land is in a designated heritage area and the proposed buildings are adjacent to a heritage property, both of those reports and the consultation are required. BEST FIT FOR THE AREA: DEVELOPER Janine Walsh, project manager for Stonemount, told Saltwire they’ve been putting a lot of work in for the last six to eight months on what they feel would be the best fit for the area. Right now, she said, the apartment building is at a very preliminary design stage, but they do have some renderings done and are looking at 60 units in the building, some of which would be considered affordable rentals. They are also proposing eight townhouses on Margaret's Place, right on the cul de sac. As for the future of the former convent and orphanage, that hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet, but it's expected to be converted to housing. “The existing heritage structure that is there, we will be proposing to renovate that into the same type of residential housing units, but haven't really gotten into the details on that yet,” Walsh said. “Our primary focus for a timeline on construction would first be the 60-unit apartment complex.” ORPHANAGE DESTROYED BY FIRE The apartment complex will go on the site of the former Belvedere Orphanage, which burned down in 2017, and was subsequently demolished. That building was also a registered heritage property and at one time also housed a high school and provincial government offices. Both of the buildings are in the St. John's Ecclesiastical District, a National Historic Site which also includes the Mount St. Francis Monastery, Gower Street United Church and the Basilica, which is a National Historic site unto itself. Walsh said they don’t really have a timeline for the project nailed down yet, and it can be contingent on the process they are now going through with the city to rezone the land from Commercial Office (CO), Institutional (INST) and Apartment 2 (A2) zones to the Apartment 1 (A1) zone. ONE OF THE OLDEST BUILDINGS IN ST. JOHN’S The convent, which was constructed in 1826 and is believed to be the secondoldest building in the city, was originally built for by lawyer and politician Hugh Alexander Emerson. According to Heritage N.L., in 1859, it became an orphanage for girls under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy as St. Michael's Convent. By the 1880s, it had become too small for the growing number of orphans and a new building – the now-demolished Belvedere Orphanage – opened in 1885. The Sisters of Mercy lived at St. Michael’s Convent until 1999, at which time the property was sold to developer Myles-leger for $500,000. ‘TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE’ Luke Quinton, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust, said they take a “cautiously optimistic” approach when it comes to developers purchasing historic properties in the city, and hope that whatever is done with the almost 200-year-old property happens soon. “The apartments are great, the townhouses are great, but what our board will be zeroing in on is, if there are plans to do something with the convent, time is of the essence,” he said, noting the building had been abandoned for some time. “If these people really want to preserve it, there’s nothing obviously wrong about leaving it for last, but I mean, how much longer are we talking here? Is it going to be two years, 10 years? I think that’s what’s important here, where it is a registered heritage structure.” SITTING EMPTY Quinton said they’re concerned any time a heritage structure has been sitting empty for some time and how much that increases the cost of maintaining or repurposing it and the impact it can have on its future. He said this property, which at one time was one of the most stately houses in the City of St. John’s, is a prime example. “Part of the reason these places leave the field is because they’re so neglected for so long, for any number of reasons, the appeal that it once held is not apparent anymore and that’s definitely what happened here,” Quinton said. INCENTIVE PROGRAMS Quinton says the historic trust would like to see incentive programs from government for people who are working on National Historic Sites to preserve them and make it more financially viable to do so. Those kind of incentives drives these buildings to be saved and repurposed, he said, and if a developer feels like they can’t make a go of it, then the government should be looking a what it can do to make it easier. The organization would also like to see the city do more to ensure this type of property is maintained in developments, he said, such as making it a condition of the rezoning that the heritage building be maintained. “I think that would be a big step forward for the city as well,” he said. “Let’s just not assume that people are going to do the right thing here with these buildings. We can’t, unfortunately. We’ve been burned before and we can’t really let that continue to happen.”