This is the third time in two years that a Mrdjenovich project has come before an appeal board, though that may be in part because his is one of few companies currently building large-scale housing in Yellowknife.
The latest project is on Hagel Drive, a gravel strip for which the term “road” would be generous that extends away from Niven Drive near the city’s Cavo condominiums, overlooking Back Bay.
Mrdjenovich plans a four-storey building with, according to floor plans, 14 one-bed and 56 two-bed units plus 71 associated parking spaces.
In letters to the city, three nearby condo corporations and five other residents say their main concern is that the new building will generate too much traffic for the area’s roads to cope and there won’t be enough parking (though they acknowledge 71 spaces is more than the zoning bylaw’s minimum requirement).
Some residents, in their appeals, also allege the city quietly changed the area’s density cap from 49 to 70 units per building without informing people living there. Though they admit that doesn’t form grounds for appeal, one resident writes that it “does not inspire confidence that the city’s efforts are in good faith.”
The letters, at times identically worded, state residents will be adversely affected by traffic problems and the city should have carried out an updated traffic study – the last one having been conducted in 2012 – before granting the development a permit. Failure to do so, the appellants argue, was a misapplication of the zoning bylaw.
In a written response ahead of Thursday’s hearing, the city argues Mrdjenovich’s application was processed in accordance with the bylaw and the planned building is a permitted use for the area.
Acknowledging the appellants’ contention that the area density is being increased to allow the new building to offer 70 units, the city states this is “in keeping with the new community plan and the new zoning bylaw,” which were signed off and implemented over the past two years.
On the issue of traffic in the area, the city argues there is not that much traffic, either now or with the new building at full capacity.
A December 2018 traffic count registered a peak of 53 vehicles per hour at the intersection of Hagel Drive and Niven Drive, the city states, asserting that engineers ordinarily consider 100 vehicles per hour the minimum peak figure for a fresh traffic study. “The current vehicle traffic in Niven is low and considered excellent,” the city writes.
Projections suggest only the Niven Gate exit onto Highway 4 will be “at capacity” in the near future, the city continues, and that will be monitored with potential for a future expansion of the intersection.
The appellants contend that the city’s plan to perform a traffic study after the building is built, not beforehand, makes no sense.
“The need for new rental housing within the city outweighs the need to update a traffic study,” the city concludes. “The time required to complete an update to the 2012 study would add undue delay to a much-needed housing development.”
Mrdjenovich, in a submission through his lawyers, made the same argument.
Stating that none of the appellants had demonstrated an actual misapplication of the zoning bylaw, the company’s law firm wrote: “The developer has done everything required of it by the City of Yellowknife to bring this project to fruition at a time when the need for additional housing in the city is critical. The demand for housing in the city remains high, and supply of units is limited. The additional housing units to be provided by this project will help to reduce the current imbalance, and this is a step which would clearly benefit the city as a whole.”
The lack of housing is becoming a crisis in Yellowknife, a city which has been described as possessing a de facto zero-percent vacancy rate. Home values have shot up during the pandemic and new arrivals tell of weeks spent trying to track down somewhere, anywhere to live.
That makes new housing units a precious commodity, but a succession of neighbourhoods have fought back against Mrdjenovich’s proposals on the grounds that they aren’t in keeping with the area or otherwise inappropriately bend or break zoning rules.
In November 2020, the development appeal board decided a Mrdjenovich apartment building at the foot of School Draw Avenue could not be four storeys tall as his company had planned.
While all other grounds for appeal were dismissed, the board found the development officer had erred in approving a height variance for the proposed 65-unit apartment building. The board’s decision meant the original, lower height limit in the area would apply. Mrdjenovich said the project would go ahead in an altered form.
A month earlier, the appeal board had ordered the city to remove a variance granted to the West Bay condominiums – another Mrdjenovich project – at the top of the same street. The variance would have allowed the developer to fit a larger number of condos into the space.