Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

$6.5 million vision for 50/50 lot unveiled

Council to discuss first comprehensive 50/50 plan on Tuesday; city administration warns they'll be throwing away a decade's worth of work if they don't act.

Lights, curtain, drumroll… ladies and gentlemen, let us present the new $6.5-million vision for downtown Yellowknife and the 50/50 lot, at least as City planners and architects would have it.

The 50/50 lot, purchased by the City for $1.45 million last October, is now envisioned as a plaza, with a bus stop, washrooms, arts centre (not included in the price), benches, a multi-level meandering thoroughfare and storefronts opening from the mall through the (currently) blank wall on the backside of the lot. There’s even a fire pit! Across 50th Street, specially designed to close during concerts and festivals to accommodate large crowds, is a library or multi-use residential building (also not included in the $6.5 million).

The plan, developed by the Taylor Architecture Group and PICEA Landscape Architects Inc. after months of extensive public consultation, was revealed on Friday in the agenda for next week’s Municipal Services Committee Meeting. At Tuesday’s meeting councillors will discuss, for the first time, whether to adopt the report “for information” and “proceed with ongoing engagement, external support, and development of appropriate incentives.”

It’s a grand vision, which, by the plan’s own reckoning, intends to provide “inclusive, inviting space which will foster activity in this area and enliven the downtown. This would be the first step to redeveloping 50th Street, as well as revitalizing the downtown core.”

Whether or not the plan moves forward depends on what council thinks of it and its price tag; though this decision may be left for the next council, elected on Oct. 19, to make. In any case here’s a peek at the City’s grand vision for downtown — in its infancy, when everything seems possible.

The major elements:

  • A small circular plaza, on the corner of Franklin and 50th, hemmed in by landscaping and intended to created “intimate space within the larger plaza which can host a breadth of social and cultural activities.”
  • A bus shelter/”tower-like” structure, beside the circular plaza on Franklin that “acts as a landmark and architectural element, signifying the downtown core… [and acts] as a sort of billboard to the downtown (can post time, temperature, events, etc. on it or light up when events are taking place).” This would replace the current bus stop on corner of 49th and Franklin.
  • Public washroom. Located by the bus stop, this would be “a transparent enclosure around the solid element in the centre, where the plumbing and fixtures would be located. This will provide a sheltered, heated space while maintaining full visibility, thus aiding with security and supervision.”
  • A larger plaza, on the south side of the lot “geared towards festivals and public events…  As needed, 50th Street can be closed off to extend the area available for this festival space.”
  • Artist Studios/Gallery in the far corner of the lot made of “temporary elements, for the short to medium‐term using structures such as shipping containers.” In the longer term “a more permanent building or an extension to the mall, to expand the large rental space in the mall onto the plaza, could be built to serve as the arts/cultural centre.”
  • A raised platform running along the (currently) blank wall, which will hopefully be opened up with storefronts. This platform will create a space in front of the storefronts opening onto the plaza from the mall and provide space foe things like a deck/seating area for Latitudes restaurant.

  • A new mall entrance in the corner behind the bus stop/washroom and aligned with the circular plaza, “designed so as to create an interesting architectural element and to signal to passersby that this is the primary entrance and to attract them through the site to the mall.” This would be the largest of several new entries into the mall, and it’s assumed each store that opens a front onto the plaza will also provide an entry into the mall.
  • 50th Street would see some street scaping, though minimal in the short term. “The longer-term vision for 50th Street could include the resurfacing of the street to match that of the adjacent plaza, and the removal of curbs, parking meters and other appurtenances to create a continuous public realm.”

A library?

The plan, as it will to be presented to council on Tuesday, doesn’t directly include a library or any other major buildings. But it does reference a “library/arts/cultural centre” and “a mixed-use residential and commercial building,” which could potentially go across 50th Street in the lot between the Gold Range and the Raven.

“Investment in the downtown core is key to its growth and a public facility, such as a library/arts/cultural centre, would be the perfect start to downtown revitalization,” says the report. “A library, or other major public facility, in the downtown boosts activity in the area and even provides for after-hour use beyond bars and restaurants, thus attracting a variety of demographics which typically may not stay in the downtown during the evenings.”

The City has been thinking about building a new library for some time. And it was the most popular idea to emerge from months of public consultation, conducted both in person and online.

However, the estimated cost of building a library or any other large structure would be significant – certainly more than the $6.5 million being budgeted for the plaza. Any major building development would be a much longer-term project – and council has not yet voted to proceed with design work or feasibility studies for something like a library.

Finding the money

Which brings us to the major question councillors will be asking themselves on Tuesday: how do we fund the plaza project?

Here’s the rough breakdown of estimated costs:

  • $2.1 million to develop the “programmable commercial plaza … including a healthy 20% contingency.”
  • $1.9 million for “demolition and reconstruction of the 50th Street mid-block roadway and sidewalk, including streetscaping.”
  • $2 million for “all architectural improvements to the mall.”
  • $450,000 for the public washroom/bus shelter node.

In their memo accompanying the plan, City administration suggests $1.1 million could come from the capital budget.

“These funds have typically been used for Harbour Plan, Smart Growth and Streetscaping Initiatives,” says admin, pointing out that $5 million has been invested in Old Airport Road streetscaping and Harbour Plan initiatives over the past five years. “Despite the Downtown being identified as a significantly higher investment priority, as reflected in numerous City plans, it has failed to see such capital investment.”

Further money could be drawn from Downtown Reserve Fund (which will be $660,000 in 2016). And it’s about time, admin argues, that council vote to put some serious Land Development Fund dollars to work in the downtown.

“Out of the $25 million in revenues, only $3.2 million was invested in … [downtown] initiatives including Pilot’s Monument and 50th Street, whereas $7.5 million is what is prescribed [by City policy].”

Externally, the City could try to secure federal funding from CanNor and territorial funding from the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. They could partner with the REITs that own the mall, especially Holloway Lodging Corporation and Slate REIT, which owns the upper mall.

Finally, admin isn’t beyond suggesting the City try raising funds through “commercial advertising/plaza naming rights.”

Whatever the hodgepodge of funding the City can pull together, if it decides to go with the plan at all, it’s unlikely to get it all in one fell swoop. The funding would likely be gradual – hence the proposal to work on the plaza in phases, starting with the north end of the site (i.e. the washrooms, mini plaza and bus stop.)

“This will show Yellowknife residents that revitalization has begun and that efforts are being carried out in a timely manner,” while negotiations with the REITs about renovating the mall and opening up storefronts take place, according to the plan.

A decade’s work at stake?

Ultimately, whether this plan lives or gets sent straight back to the drawing board is up to council (likely the one elected this Oct. 19). That said, admin seems fairly adamant that council should move forward with this. Here’s their “rationale,” in language that couldn’t be much stronger: “The assembly of key parcels in the heart of the Downtown over the past four years has been an important step forward.”

“Further commitment however is essential … [and] it is evident the next step of capital investment is required if the condition of Downtown Yellowknife is to improve. Without this commitment no tangible social, economic or physical progress will have been made over the past decade.”

To make the investments admin recommends or send the plan back? Sounds like an election issue.