Opinion
Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

50/50 Plan Nosedives: Here’s Why

City administration's plan to revive the centre of downtown has left many on council with buyer's remorse.
Chances we’ll ever see this in downtown Yellowknife seem highly unlikely

Have you ever, in a moment of whimsy, purchased a velvet shirt, maybe with stripes, or perhaps some snazzy sequins, only to realize upon sober second thought that you’re never actually going to wear the thing and you’ve lost the receipt?  In the end, you put it in your bottom drawer and hope it goes away. Lesson learned, hopefully.

The City’s plan for the 50/50 lot, whether it deserves it or not, is turning out to be that shirt. As last night’s council meeting made perfectly clear, the initial glitz (if there ever was any) of the plaza plan has faded fast, and no one really likes the idea they spent $175,000 (of federal money) producing. Even councillors Cory Vanthuyne and Dan Wong, rearing to go last week, started performing some awkward pirouettes.

“Council should have power to make approvals every step of the way, and we’ll also have the ability to put on the emergency brake if need be,” said Vanthuyne, still in support of the plan, but treading a much finer rhetorical line than he did during his full-throated endorsement of the proposal at last week’s Municipal Services Committee meeting.

In the end, council did adopt the plan “for information.” But complaints were many and there is little interest in moving forward with the proposal as is.

Beauty is not enough

“In a winter city, I don’t think a plaza is going to do anything to change the downtown, which is the whole purpose of this project,” said Coun. Rebecca Alty, one of the plan’s most vocal critics. “At -40 this isn’t going to draw people downtown, and in the summer people are still going to flock to Sombe K’e because it’s got a beautiful view of the lake and it’s five times the size of the 50/50 lot.”

“I don’t think people are going to stop shopping online and start shopping locally because of a beautiful entrance to the mall,” she added.

Councillors Phil Moon Son and Adrian Bell were of the view that the plaza plan, whatever its merits, would fail unless the City’s parks bylaws were fortified and good behavior was enforced stringently in the area. As Moon Son put it: “The public seems to lack confidence in the municipality or the law enforcement of this community to provide a safe area for this type of activity to occur.”

“We can’t simply hope that you’re going to achieve that through inspiring design,” said Bell, pointing to the “rules in place behind the scenes” in places, like Young and Dundas Square in Toronto, that seem to have “spontaneous energy and [where] everybody is in a good mood.”

Coun. Linda Bussey, for her part, wanted a library. Coun. Niels Konge suggested bringing back the Miner’s Mess.

A cul-de-sac

Most of all, the councillors wanted more options.

And here’s the crux of the situation the City finds itself in: administration and their consultants led council into a cul-de-sac with only one house for sale. It’s a nice house, to be sure. But the walls don’t look particularly insulated, and I really don’t know if that pool and those deckchairs are going to get much use in the winter months.

What council needed to see, as they themselves said repeatedly last night, were different ideas for what to plop into the cavernous hole in the centre of downtown: a library, eco-housing, an arts centre, etc. It’s not that any one of these ideas would have had council’s support any more than the plaza plan does. But they needed options to choose between and to take to their constituents for feedback.

As such, they’ve tasked admin with collecting more public input and coming back to them with alternative designs for the site and ways to make the space safer.  

Next step?

The problem though, is that admin spent most of the ‘phase one’ consultation budget developing the plaza plan. ‘Phase two’ funding is for ‘detailed design work’ – and “that $500,000 is assuming a fair level of commitment,” said Jeff Humble, the City’s director of planning and development.

Humble asked council to “give [admin] enough flexibility that we’re not going to jeopardize the funding.” But it’s hard to imagine anyone convincing CanNor that the City is ready for detailed design funding in light of last night’s fractious discussion.

This leaves things in a confusing bind. The next round of consultation could be done in-house, perhaps with a smidge of leftover ‘phase one’ funding. But considering how much money and time the City spent to get where they are now, it’s unclear how extensive such consultation could really be.

We’re also rapidly approaching 2016 budget season, when admin needs at least a basic sense of council’s desired direction to start assigning money to budget lines. Speaking of timing, was the decision to release the 50/50 plan in the weeks leading up to the municipal election really a wise one? There may be perfectly sound reasons for this timing, but it has added a whole level of uncertainty to the process. At least we now have a central election topic.

Ultimately the decision on whether to fund the plaza plan was always going to be left up to the next council, elected in October. But last night’s deliberations were, ideally, supposed to provide some direction to allow for a tidy handoff of the issue from one council to another. Alas it looks like the incoming group is inheriting little more than an unpopular plan, while admin scrambles to find alternatives before the funding and political will peters away.