Fran Hurcomb
Mark Rendell

City vs. Woodyard: Lease Application Has Already Been Made

The latest attempt to tackle the Old Town neighbourhood is happening quietly

Last July, without any fanfare or public communication, the City submitted a lease application to the GNWT for the land the Woodyard neighbourhood is built on.

The coveted lot runs from Hamilton Drive to Lundquist Road, along the back of the houses on Ragged Ass Road, and out to the water. It contains the entire Woodyard area, and part of the nearby marshland.

The GNWT’s Department of Lands is currently reviewing the City’s application, and would not comment on its status. The City, for its part, wouldn’t say what it intends to do with the historic area, beyond the expected bureaucratese: “If the leasehold is granted […] the City will first conduct public consultation and engage the neighbours to discuss appropriate uses,” Wenyan Yu, the City’s manager of lands, told EDGE.

There’s an old mantra about Jerusalem: you move a single brick and you start a war. The same could be said about the Woodyard. And over the decades, the City and the Woodyard’s shack dwellers have been at frequent loggerheads over the storied area’s future.

This is seems to be the reason for the City’s choice to not communicate about the application.

“We wanted to start talking to the residents once we get the lease, so when we talk to them they don’t become all panicked,” said Yu. “We don’t want to upset them from the beginning because the application may take time.”

She added that because the City doesn’t yet have jurisdiction over the area, it couldn’t start discussing its future. It’s a strange response, as the City has held numerous public meetings about the Woodyard over the past three decades.

Yu told Edge that  information about the application is in the public domain, and technically that’s true. However, the only place it appears is a single reference to “Lot 3 (Remainder) Block 201, Plan 2396” in a bylaw permitting the City to acquire 20 different parcels of land from the GNWT.  There are no maps attached to this bylaw, and it wasn’t even posted on the City’s website until EDGE requested it yesterday.

None of the Woodyard residents EDGE spoke with know about the application. Even Les Rocher, who owns a number of the area’s shacks, said he hadn’t heard about it. He did not wish to comment further on the issue.

Long memories

Edge reported earlier this week that the City’s application for the water lot beside the Woodyard is “for potential future uses in line with the long range vision of the Yellowknife Harbour Plan.” Whether this plan will include the Woodyard proper remains to be seen.

As Yu pointed out, the City doesn’t want to set off undue panic by kicking off a public discussion about potential uses for the area until the application’s fate has been decided. A laudable goal, perhaps, but not the wisest strategy in light of the City’s contentious history with the neighbourhood.

“If they actually get that lease, it doesn’t bode well,” said Fran Hurcomb, a former Woodyarder who has written extensively about Old Town. “They’ve always contended that it’s a safety hazard – it’s unsafe, unsanitary, a fire hazard, nothing is near building code – if the City owns it, liability will be their big thing and I’m sure they’d like to get rid of it.”

In the ‘90s, the City dreamt about reforming the anarchic patch of town with a bulldozer. A draft policy document from 1997 envisions three options for the Woodyard, all which start with the acquisition of “title to Lot 3, Block 201” and quickly progress to “All existing structures will be demolished.”

Not to worry, though. One of the 1997 options suggested that, “The cultural aspect of heritage preservation could be accomplished with unobtrusive signs, plaques and artifacts.” Another suggested that “Replicas of the two old-timers shacks [could] be built to comply with current health and safety standards.”

Clearly the plan was never acted on, but Woodyarders have long memories. And that was only one round in the long-running confrontation. In the 1980s, the City tried to get all the Woodyarders to sign an occupancy agreement that gave the City the right to evict shack dwellers and demolish their homes with a year’s notice. They didn’t, choosing to mobilize as the Willow Flats/Joliffe Island Community Association and lobby the territorial government to intercede. In 1985, the then-commissioner, John Parker, ordered a heritage review of the area by the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, and the City backed down.

The City’s application may yet get turned down. And there’s nothing, beyond historical precedent, to suggest they’re raring to flatten the Woodyard. But it does seem odd they’re approaching such a contentious issue under an apparent veil of secrecy. And there’s a lot at stake.

“It’s the only place left you can get any alternative lifestyle, the rents are low, people take care of themselves,” says Hurcomb. “I think it would be a terrible shame if they decided things needed to change.”

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