50/50 Field of Dreams: buy it and they will come

Evidently bored with the 50th Street properties it spent almost $1 million acquiring three years ago, City Council is now pinning its hopes for downtown redevelopment on a new Field of Dreams, the 50/50 land it wants to buy for $1.45 million.

Empty and on the market for more than a decade, the oddly-shaped patch of asphalt next to the retail burial ground of Centre Square Mall has tantalized and terrified politicians and developers with its potential for success or failure.

City hall has been in and out of love with downtown, alternately draining its energy with strip malls, box stores and supermarkets on Old Airport Road, discouraging shoppers with ranks of parking metres, and accumulating land on 50th Street for undefined redevelopment schemes.

At the same time, the City has spurned arguably better land purchases. It turned its back on the Johnson’s lands in Old Town in favour of the 50th Street land-assembly assault that lost momentum when the owners of the Gold Range and Raven, the key properties on the block, declined to sell.

At a Tuesday media briefing the day after casting the deciding vote on the 50/50 deal, Mayor Mark Heyck insisted that although the city’s 50th Street properties are up for sale, the dream is not dead. Far from it, he said, a developer could snap them up and combine them with land on 51st Street for some project or other.

The Mayor is confident the City can cut through the Gordian Knot of caveats and easements and ownership conflicts that have made Centre Square Mall into a place where naïve retailers go to die, and discouraged potential investors from buying and developing the 50-50 land.

The first signs are promising. Adrian Bell, one of four councilors who backed the 50-50 purchase, tweeted Thursday that Northland Utilities will relocate a subterranean power line that bisects the property at its own cost. But the goal of redeveloping 50th Street remains as distant, and vague, as a dream.

Councillors have been quick to reject any notion that it will become a park or plaza – another place for the homeless, unemployed and addled to idle away the day. Mayor Heyck’s 50/50 vision is a mix of retail and residential, with apartments or condominiums sheltering potential customers for shiny new storefronts peeking out from what is now the blank face of Centre Square Mall.

Growing the downtown population has been key to redevelopment of other decayed urban centres, and the Mayor is convinced Yellowknife is no different. It remains to be seen if city hall’s new Field of Dreams will attract developers with plans and the money needed to build them.

Immediate past experience is not encouraging. The original 50th Street property buys were justified with a vague plan for a residential-commercial development that morphed into a demonstration low-cost eco-housing project on 48th Street that has yet to materialize.

The 50/50 purchase could be a defining moment for the current Mayor and Council. The store of good will they carried out of the last election will be quickly exhausted if the latest venture into the speculative world of land assembly is revealed as a barren wasteland, and not their Field of Dreams for a revivified downtown.

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