The company that owns one half of Yellowknife’s Centre Square Mall is proposing to buy a vacant neighbouring lot for $1 and build 180 or more housing units.
Holloway Lodging took the surprise step of admitting on Monday that its management of the downtown mall’s upper level has been sub-par since taking ownership of the facility in 2014.
“We have not done a good job with that mall. We have not invested the money we should have,” said Rob Sherman, Holloway’s chief operating officer, adding that the company’s senior management had changed significantly – his hiring included – in the past year.
Sherman spoke as his company set out to convince city councillors that letting Yellowknife’s 50/50 lot go for $1 would help to revitalize the downtown and provide a huge influx of housing.
Holloway’s proposal involves a 12-storey building with commercial retail space on the ground floor and units above ranging from studios to two-bedroom homes.
The 50/50 lot, currently used as parking, has been deserted for years. The city has owned the land since 2014, initially planning to build a park but subsequently abandoning that proposal in favour of finding a buyer, only for none to come forward.
Holloway’s interest is the first realistic offer the city has received, staff said on Monday.
The Holloway plan and the long-vacant Bellanca building’s recently announced transformation into homes would, if both go ahead, take two prime examples of Yellowknife’s dilapidated downtown and turn them into major housing projects for a city in urgent need.
‘You need skin in the game’
However, the proposed cost of $1 – for downtown land valued at well over $1 million – raised eyebrows among some councillors, though all were broadly supportive.
Councillor Niels Konge said Holloway should be told to hand over a larger deposit, even if the company is ultimately refunded once development begins.
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be the full amount, but throw half a million dollars at it,” said Konge. “That way, if they do walk away or don’t meet their commitments, at least we’re getting something for it.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say you’ve got to put a little bit of skin in the game to get this. We’ll give it back to you, for sure. You apply for your development permit, here’s your $500,000 cheque. I would feel a lot more comfortable if we had something like that in there.”
Sherman, representing Holloway, said the company could consider a larger deposit but added: “We’d have to hear more about it. There’s a lot of risk associated with these types of project, even before the current climate. There is a reason this thing has been vacant for so long and nobody has stepped up to do this.
“It’s very clear that the city needs to incentivize residential, needs to increase density as much as it can.”
Final design unclear
Councillor Julian Morse complained that council does not yet have the full detail of what Holloway will build if given the green light. No designs or conceptual drawings were made public on Monday, for example, and Morse suggested City Hall staff appeared to have more detail than councillors were being allowed to see.
“You’re asking us to give approval for something. Why would we not be able to see all the information you do?” Morse asked of city staff.
Mayor Rebecca Alty said staff needed council’s direction before going further to avoid conducting a huge amount of work only for council to turn it down.
Alty also noted that in the past, Yellowknife councillors have become too wrapped up in the minutiae of developments when their role is ordinarily to consider the bigger picture.
“We might get into ‘I don’t like it because it’s blue,’ which we’ve done in the past for a few projects,” she said.
Councillor Steve Payne stressed that Holloway should receive no tax breaks on the property, once built, if the sale price is $1, but city staff said the current rules would allow Holloway to apply for certain tax incentives. (An updated set of rules on such tax incentives is due next year.)
Other councillors expressed vocal support for a solution, at last, to the problem of a downtown lot that had seemed destined to remain unoccupied forever.
“Maybe there’s a little bit of faith that’s needed, knowing it hasn’t been developed for so many years,” Councillor Robin Williams said in response to Morse’s concern that councillors do not have the full picture.
“They have skin in the game in our community and are looking to put more into our community,” Williams said of Holloway, though he did acknowledge concern about where 300 or more people living in the new building would park vehicles.
“A couple of pretty pictures of buildings would have been real nice and put some concerns at rest,” he told Holloway’s representatives.
“I’m excited to see this proposal,” said Councillor Cynthia Mufandaedza, “and hope that whatever development comes will help the city and revitalize the downtown.”
Holloway ‘trying to improve’ mall
Holloway’s admission that the company has botched its management of Centre Square Mall may appease Yellowknifers – some of whom have long characterized the mall’s two owners as faraway landlords with little apparent care for the city and its residents – even if the company’s admission came in the course of trying to score downtown land for a buck.
The discussion also came on the day a new visitor centre opened in the lower half of the same mall, which the city is pointing to as an opening step in downtown revitalization.
“We’re trying to make some improvements. Have we made the progress we need to, yet? No. It’s very much on my radar,” Sherman told councillors.
“We’re very close to this property, we know it well. There is some shared interest there in revitalizing the downtown, we’re very invested in the area.
“There is a significant need for residential. It is a community we are already invested in. It makes a lot of sense for us to see that area improve.”
The city is now working on something similar for three other municipally owned lots on 50 Street. Those lots, too, have been in the city’s possession for years with little sign of lasting development.
If council provides formal approval at a meeting on September 26, those three lots will be made available through a request for proposals that could see them sold – potentially for tiny fees – if a developer presents a plan that meets the city’s revitalization targets. At the same meeting, council is expected to approve Holloway’s 50/50 lot proposal.
“It’s great, after almost a decade, that we actually have a plan – that we’re going to do something,” said Konge, ending his third term and 10th year on council.
“We have had the lots on the market for aeons and no takers,” said Alty, who praised Holloway’s 50/50 lot proposal over the city’s initial vision a decade ago.
“The plan was to build a park or plaza. Today’s proposal, I think, will do more to revitalize the downtown than that park was going to, and it’s not going to cost the taxpayers any more to develop.
“It will generate tax revenue once it’s built … and so I am supportive of this project.”