Master Blaster: Developing, Mike Mrdjenovich’s Way

Mike Mrdjenovich’s new hotel has quite the foundation – a storey-and-a-half of framed wooden walls on one side of his rock-blasted and leveled property by Niven Lake. You’d almost think, if you didn’t know better, that the actual construction for the building has begun, despite the fact that Mrdjenovich’s building permit has not yet been approved by the City. But would the envelope-pushing developer ever do something like that?

The buzz around town is that Mrdjenovich is riding roughshod over the rules with his 146-room hotel and conference centre; but on closer inspection, it’s more a question of rules being bent than broken. As of last week, Mrdjenovich had the second and final part of his development permit in place – it became effective June 12 and the appeal period ended on June 27 without anyone filing a petition to have the permit overturned. Last year he got the full go-ahead from the City to start blasting and leveling the property. This second phase of the development permit allows him to begin laying foundations.

What’s still outstanding, however, is the building permit itself. This won’t be approved until he gets the green light from the GNWT’s departments of transportation and lands to run water and sewer lines under the highway. This could take weeks or months. And if Mrdjenovich keeps building up his “foundation,” he could be served with a stop-work order from the City’s senior administration. As usual, however, the veteran developer is skirting the edge of the allowable with characteristic nonchalance: “It’s no big deal. We have to jump through hoops and apply for paper, but I don’t see it as a problem.”

“The beer’s cold, do you worry about aesthetics?”

There’s no doubt Mrdjenovich, who first came to Yellowknife in 1975 as an electrician and founded Nova Builders in the late 1970s, is one of the more polarizing figures in town. He’s often criticized for creating plug-ugly structures, and he has a long history of waging war on the City, in the most purple of prose, when they don’t agree with him. Yet, with around 20 buildings to his name, he’s one of only a handful of developers who has invested a sizeable chunk of capital into Yellowknife.

“We make good enough buildings and economical buildings,” he told EDGE over the phone from the Okanagan, where he’s visiting family. “I can build a better building than anybody, but there’s the price. You have to be realistic. I don’t want to build monuments. It’s about building the economy.”

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“When you go and get a room in the Explorer or Days Inn, you pay $250 dollars a room,” he continued. “You could go into an average-looking hotel and pay $150 dollars. There’s a clean bed, it’s comfy, the beer’s cold, do you worry about aesthetics?”

It’s this approach that makes some of his critics furious.

“The whole idea of cut-and-blast building, you end up with these anonymous Soviet-like structures on a moonscape,” says naturalist and writer Jaime Bastedo, who has spoken publicly against the Niven Lake project. “Mrdjenovich is blind to natural amenities and values around him. This could have been an eco-hotel, sensitively designed into the wetland to celebrate the wetland, with designated trails and interpretive signs. It’s a lost opportunity.”

Architect Simon Taylor is more restrained in his view of Mrdjenovich: “He’s investing in the town, that’s a good thing… And he builds to what he’s allowed to build, though maybe he pushes the envelope.”

Developers are in it to make money, Taylor explains, and they need to be incentivized or coerced if they’re to invest in making more attractive buildings. “It’s unfair to target a Mrdjenovich. You have to look at what we as a society value and allow. You need good quality planning and good zoning.”

The Mrdjenovich phenomenon, he says, can be chalked up to broader trends in North America culture and economics: short-term profit is elevated over the construction of buildings and spaces that enhance quality of life and have staying value. That said, “You also need the economy to work. Cheap buildings are part of that process to keep the money going.”

But do inexpensive buildings need to be ugly? Not at all, says Taylor: “A well-designed building doesn’t mean everything is gold-plated. To make a blank statement and say an architecturally designed building is expensive is not true, but also saying a developer’s building is crap is not true.”

Of Ducks and Demolition

Whether or not Mrdjenovich could be making more beautiful buildings, it’s his often his intransigence and off-hand remarks that rub people the wrong way.

“They are jerking me around,” Mrdjenovich told an NNSL reporter last year when his hotel project was being held up. “They don’t want to give me a development permit. They worry about little birds and ducks in that pond behind.”

He continued his tirade against ducks when we spoke last week: “You have so many tree huggers who think the world owes them something. Everybody wants to be green and nobody wants to pay for it. Some of these guys like to listen to birds. Well, I like listening to birds too. Just walk 100 feet away and listen to the birds. It’s a bunch of bullshit.”

How-to-rankle-progressives 101! For Mrdjenovich, Niven Lake “is not a lake, it’s a slough, a three-foot deep slough.” For someone like Bastedo, it’s a rare ecological treasure: because it was used as a dumping ground for human waste from 1947 to 1981, he explains, it has an unusually rich array of flora and fauna; and while it’s one lake among many used by migratory birds, the fact it’s so accessible makes it an invaluable asset to the community.

“No project has hit me in the heart more than this one,” says Bastedo. “It’s just an obliteration of nature and goes against everything I believe in when it comes to planning. The City is remaining silent while ecological atrocities are happening, just rolling over and playing dead.”

“It’s my land, people should mind their own business,” says Mrdjenovich to charges of ecological destruction. “I bought that land. If they want to keep it for a bird sanctuary, they should have bought it.”

For him, the Niven project is mainly an opportunity to make some dosh and add another notch in his portfolio, which includes around 20 hotels across Western Canada. But it will also have a positive impact on Yellowknife, he claims, not least by driving hotel prices down. He’s planning on offering rooms starting at around $150 a night, cheaper than the Explorer next door. “We’re going put everyone in line,” he says, explaining that he only has to operate his new hotel at 50 percent capacity to make money – though he expects to have a steady 65 percent occupancy by poaching customers from other hotels.

More Mrdjenovich

Whether you hate his belligerence or admire his chutzpah, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Mrdjenovich in the coming years. With five projects finishing up in Alberta and the low price of oil making further investment in the province risky, Nova Construction will be refocusing back North in the coming years, says Mrdjenovich.

He’s lined up two major Yellowknife projects once the hotel is complete. Mrdjenovich says he’s going to put up 100 apartment units, either in a single building or in several buildings, in his now-vacant Bartram Court property at the Old Town end of School Draw within the next two or three years. This number may increase to 200 depending on capital, zoning and what the market can accommodate. He also has 11 acres in Kam Lake that used to belong to the CBC, though he hasn’t settled on whether to develop it as commercial or residential.

“I’ve always invested up North and I’m going to keep doing it,” he says. And if Yellowknifers don’t like it? Well, he’s hardly apologetic: “I got big cojones … I don’t like to be pushed around, I push back.”

Being Mike Mrdjenovich: selected highlights from a developer’s career

  • In the late ’90s, Mrdjenovich found himself in hot water after his friend former premier Don Morin was caught in a conflict of interest for, among other things, awarding contracts to Nova Builders and extending a lease on a building owned by Mrdjenovich.
  • In 2000, Mrdjenovich swore he would never build again in Yellowknife, after his proposal to build a seniors’ home in Bartam Court was rejected by city council.
  • In 2003 and 2004, he successfully fought appeals to halt construction on a 50-unit townhouse complex on Ptarmigan Road and an 81-room hotel next door to Stanton Hospital.
  • In 2009 he bought a failed construction project in Niven Lake Phase V, but did not finish building. He sold the property back to the City in 2012.
  • In 2009 he got into a tussle with City Hall over the height of his fence around Bartam Court that almost ended up in court: “They can serve me as many papers as they want,” he told NNSL in 2010. “It’s so stupid. Thirty-two inch fence is OK but six foot is not OK… What the hell is the difference? A fence is a fence. They’re full of shit. That’s what they are.”

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