Council shifts focus to 50/50 lot

With the Gold Range and Raven remaining out of reach, the City plans to revitalize downtown through the purchase of the vacant parking lot at the corner of 50th and 50th.

City council voted in favour of buying the land on Monday.

Council was split down the middle on the controversial $1.45 million purchase that proponents claim is the lynchpin in any downtown revitalization scheme.

Mayor Mark Heyck broke the tie, voting with the pro-purchasers.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for something to happen on that space, and I don’t believe it will unless we show some leadership as a municipal government,” he said. “I feel quite optimistic that when the city takes a leadership role in revitalizing the downtown we’ll quickly see other private sector entities and government entities coming to the table saying we want to be a part of this.”

The move follows council’s unsuccessful plan to revitalize 50th Street by developing the lots running from the Gold Range to the Raven into eco-housing, among other potential things. In 2011 the city purchased three lots between the two buildings but was unable to acquire either book-ending establishment.

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On Monday council voted to offload these lots, now consolidated to attract developers, for a price tag of $1.3 million. An amendment to the motion was passed moments before the vote removing a requirement that council approve any development plans for the three lots.

Councillor Adrian Bell, who proposed the amendment, argued potential buyers would be scared away if they needed to prepare pricey proposals that could be shot down by council.

Future plan not set

Although council’s focus has crossed to the other side of the street, it’s unclear what shape the 50/50 lot will take when it passes into public hands.

Heyck said a number of options are on the table: turning the mall inside-out and building storefronts along 50th street, building a new library, enticing developers to construct high-density housing.

“If there’s the possibility for mixed use commercial-residential facility, I think that would be a fantastic use for that property,” said Heyck.

Heyck and other councillors were keen to dismiss the notion that the whole lot would become a park or a plaza – though part of it may become public space. It all depends on community input and plans brought forward by developers, said Heyck.

The city’s primary role won’t be as developer, he added; rather an intermediary that cleans up the space and uses tools such as tax breaks and density bonusing to make it more attractive to private investors.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve done something like this,” said Heyck. “Phase V of Niven Lake was a moonscape for years and years serving no productive use to this community. The City acquired that lot, parceled it and resold it to smaller scale developers. And in the very near future it will become home to over 90 families in Yellowknife.”

The purchase won’t be financed from the city’s general coffers. Three hundred thousand dollars is coming from the Downtown Fund, which is replenished by a percentage of parking metre revenues. The rest will come from the Land Fund, which is bankrolled by the sale of other city-owned properties, including the lots on the other side of 50th.

Half of council opposed

Although the purchase won’t be funded by an uptick in taxes there was significant opposition from half of council.

Councillor Rebecca Alty said council shouldn’t move ahead before forming partnerships and looking into the feasibility of different development options.

“This land has been on the market for probably 10 years, and I don’t see it going anywhere fast, so I think we have time to get our ducks in a row,” she said.

For councillor Niels Konge, it was both a lack of plans and the potential cost of maintaining the property prior to development that guided his no vote.

“It’s been 13 years and no one can figure out what to do with that land at the current pricing. I really don’t think we’re going to be able to figure out how to make this happen without it being a big tax burden on our taxpayers,” he said.

“The partnerships that we talk about, they’re not coming at us. I’ve seen one email that says, ‘oh this could be exciting.’ And I’ve seen 40 that say ‘what are you guys doing?’”

The timeline for figuring out the property remains unclear. A number of issues need to be resolved before the purchase goes ahead – both Northland Utilities and the owners of the mall backing onto the lot have easements on the property that need to be navigated.

Heyck chose not to speculate on an exact timeline.

“I expect a year from now things will be much clearer on what’s happening on that lot,” he said. “Whether development happens shortly thereafter or takes a little more time, that’s yet to be determined.”

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