City-provided rendition of the project, featuring a hypothetical library
The $6.5 million proposal to turn the empty lot on the corner of Franklin and 50th Street into a plaza was met with cautious approval from City Council during the first full discussion of the plan yesterday.
Two councillors were in full support of the plan, two adamantly opposed it, while three seemed cautiously optimistic about the proposal.
At this point, what the councillors think is of the utmost importance – next Monday they’ll be voting on whether to adopt the plan “for information” and proceed with further public consultation and negotiations with the REITs that own the mall. It will be up to the next council, voted in on Oct. 19, to decide whether or not to actually start funding the plan. But next Monday’s vote will determine whether the plaza plan forms the core of the City’s strategy for downtown and the blueprint for revitalization efforts during the 2016 budget.
Here’s a breakdown of what different councillors are thinking:
The gung-ho duo: Vanthuyne and Wong
The chief standard-bearer of the gung-ho group was Coun. Cory Vanthuyne, who threw his “wholehearted” support behind the project with a rousing pre-written speech: “Now here we are at the end of our term and the day of effecting positive change is upon us.”
“We can’t let these efforts fade. If momentum that has been created and built up to today regarding revitalization starts to fizzle and fade, then I fear it will be a very long hard road to travel to ever bring new energy and life back to downtown.”
Coun. Dan Wong echoed Vanthuyne’s admiration for the plan, but put more of an emphasis on engaging with the arts community.
“A partnership with the arts community matters just as much here as a partnership with the REITs when we’re talking about the success or failure of this project,” he argued. “That’s because arts is just good business. An arts scene on 50/50 will bring people into 50/50 and that in itself could be just as powerful as any incentive we could offer to restaurateurs and other amenities we hope to open up there.”
(Without bursting Wong’s bubble, it’s important note that the plan, while cased in pro-arts language, doesn’t actually contain concrete plans for an arts centre, gallery, or the like. The drawings do show space where these things could go, and the document does talk about temporary and then permanent arts centres being established in later phases of the project. However, right now, a budget line for an arts centre doesn’t appear anywhere in the $6.5 million plan.)
The cautiously optimistic: Bell, Bussey, and Moon Son
Three councillors expressed tentative support for the plan, but with caveats.
“I think it’s got excellent potential to do something about a dead zone in our downtown, one of only a couple things that could solve this problem,” argued Coun. Adrian Bell. “But without participation from the mall (who are expected to chip in around $2 million for mall renovations opening up storefronts along the plaza), I think this goes from a great idea to a bad idea.”
By having a plan wholly dependent on the REITs, the City is putting “all our eggs in one basket,” he said. The City should have adopted a carrot-and-stick method, developing an alternative plan to put a library on the 50/50 lot: “It would have put us in better position when approaching the REIT to say, ‘ we’re doing this one way or another, it can either be something that makes your retail space vastly more valuable and successful, or you can be behind a new library.”
(Architect Simon Taylor tried to allay Bell’s fear by claiming the REITs had been involved in the plan from get go, and had, for the most part, already come on board: “With all due respect,” he said, “they as a REIT have also seen the City say we’re going to do a bunch of things for some time and nothing’s happened. So they’re also keen to see the City step forward and say, ‘you know what, we’re going to take this involvement one step forward.’”)
Coun. Bussey, while supportive of the plaza plan in general, argued that it should be implemented at the same time the City builds a library across the street in the City-owned lots between the Gold Range and the Raven; or “if it’s not a library, why can’t it be an eco-housing project?”
(Right now the lots between the Gold Range and the Raven, shown in the plan as the potential space for a library, are for sale. Jeff Humble, the City’s director of planning, says he already had one group interested in purchasing the lot, although it fell through. If council wants to preserve the lot for a potential library, it should probably take the lots off the market.)
Coun. Moon Son also liked elements of the plan, but worried that putting in a washroom would create even more of a gathering place for homeless people: “Homeless people should be welcome in this area regardless of its purpose, I totally agree with that, I do… My only concern here is that is it fair to the business community in that immediate area?… I can’t answer that question right now.”
The naysayers: Konge and Alty
Coun. Rebecca Alty was the last to speak at the meeting and came out swinging against the plan: “We went out to public consultation to find out what the best land use would be for 50/50 and the number one answer with most of the various survey methods was a public library.
“What we’re presented with today is basically the same plan that administration gave us in 2012. So for me why did we go out to consultation and spend $175,000 (paid for with CanNor funding) if we were going to go with the same plan anyway… I think the library, arts, cultural space, that public building with plenty of public washrooms, would be a better way to liven up a winter city.”
Coun. Niels Konge wasn’t at the meeting but when EDGE reached him afterwards he was even more blunt than Alty in his opposition.
“It’s a colossal waste of money. Are we really going to spend that kind of money on a substandard lot? I don’t see where it adds a value to all of Yellowknife. We should take that money and throw it at roads and sewers.”
And what of the lot itself?
“We hear people scream and yell about parking… maybe put in parking lot in there until we get the rest of downtown sorted out.”
(Although Konge wasn’t at the discussion, it was pointed out several times by Taylor that downtown parking is not in fact a particularly bad problem. According to Taylor, studies have shown that on any given day only about 80 percent of the parking metres downtown are being used.)
What this all means
With two councillors strongly in support of the plan and three councillors giving cautious approval, it seems likely that the plan will be adopted next Monday. Whether or not it gets funded is for the next council to decide – so ‘to fund or not to fund?’ is certainly something to ask would-be councillors when they come a-knockin’ in the coming weeks.