Homes in Yellowknife's Niven Lake on a July evening in 2021. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Why have five sections of Yellowknife been selected as priority areas for more housing, and are they the right choices?
Yellowknife city councillors spent Monday analyzing a list of target areas that city staff say are the best candidates for more housing – and listening to the rationale for those choices.
A vote next Monday is expected to direct city planners to continue their research.
The list was made public late last week and includes areas in Niven Lake, central Yellowknife and School Draw Avenue that municipal staff say would be a good fit for infill projects.
Infill means using existing space in built-up areas rather than building new subdivisions on the city’s edges. Keeping new development within existing boundaries makes offering services easier and saves the city money, staff say.
At a Monday lunchtime meeting, City of Yellowknife director of planning and development Charlsey White presented the five sites considered good candidates.
“We as a city have a lack of residential lots for sale or development,” she said, adding that the city currently has just one lot available for residential use. “Population of 20,000 people. One lot. And the city has land.”
The issue is zoning. According to White, it can take two to five years to move a piece of land onto the market. Doing so requires support from council, a development plan, research, a proposal to the GNWT and public consultation. Monday’s meeting was step one.
While 155 units are currently under construction in the city (not including 120 or so units for seniors and special care at Avens), White says 350 units are needed just to catch up to demand.
“That’s not projecting the continued growth,” said White, who noted that last year’s population growth rate in Yellowknife was 1.5 percent, higher that the 0.6 percent the city’s community plan had anticipated.
“That is a significant amount of people, a significant amount of movement.”
The city is hoping not just to catch up, but to start the paperwork on rezoning applications that help plan for what may be needed in future.
Infill and green space
Yellowknife is trying to control its sprawl.
The city is already a little spread-out for its size. Many Canadian urban centres with similar populations have densities of around 1,300 people per square kilometre, whereas Yellowknife’s is just over 1,000 people per square kilometre. The lower the density, the more the area costs per person to maintain.
Residents who don’t want new housing developments on their doorstep tend to advocate for new subdivisions (or at least, for housing to be built elsewhere). The city counters by saying denser streets help keep taxes from going up: mixed-use zoning and multi-unit dwellings substantially increase the value of city blocks and lower the tax burden for residents.
On Monday, city staff set out how they prioritized areas of Yellowknife for infill.
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said staff had “looked at virtually all the land that’s developable” and evaluated each area’s topography, “geotechnical complexity” and access to existing services.
Five candidates emerged.
Not everyone supports the initial selection.
“This isn’t New York, this is Yellowknife,” said resident James Bancroft in a letter read to council. Bancroft and several other residents appealed to councillors on Monday to avoid developing some of the open space in question.
“People choose to live here because of the lifestyle the land around us offers,” Bancroft wrote. He and others did express support for residential development along Taylor Road, the farthest proposed development site from the city centre.
A sticking point for both residents and some councillors is green space.
“The green space that we have around Burwash and Con is pretty crucial to families in the area,” said nearby resident Lindsay Armer in a presentation to council.
“When I asked my daughter if she would like to see apartments next door, townhomes next door, she said, ‘Well, where am I going to play with my friends in nature?’ She’d have to go too far, she’d have to take an adult with her, but right now, it’s right next door.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty suggested a possible compromise: the pocket neighbourhood model, which looks to improve access to outdoor space by situating homes around a shared courtyard or park.
“Would you be open to seeing parcels along Burwash and Con if the middle was kept and preserved?” Alty asked, suggesting that would mean “more residential areas along the border beside Burwash and Con road while maintaining the rock and green space in the middle, so all folks can have access to it and climb on it.”
Armer felt that would detract from her family’s enjoyment of the area.
Councillor Tom McLennan noted that a 2009 natural area preservation report recommended the Burwash and Con area be maintained, and brought up similar concerns around protecting access to trails and wildlife habitat in the School Draw and Niven sites.
“The feasibility and the ease with which development could occur on this site is what has brought it to the top forefront for consideration,” responded White.
“Hard decisions will need to be made by council when looking at infill. That study you mentioned does say 100 percent of this property should be kept for natural areas. However, we’re much further along and in greater need than we were in 2009.”
Bassi-Kellett and Alty said plans would not interfere with the School Draw bird sanctuary and the Niven trails.
“In the area development stage, we would set aside areas for nature preserve, trails, parks,” said Alty. “These maps aren’t suggested to be lot-line to lot-line residential areas.”
‘We need to change’
“We’re in a housing crisis,” said Councillor Rob Warburton. “We keep saying that housing is a right, that we need to house people, and then when solutions come up that are inconvenient, or when it comes time to make hard decisions, we get uncomfortable and back out.”
Warburton also queried framing zoning conversations around the word “development.”
“These could be homes for real people, for friends or neighbours that don’t have houses. People that can’t get housing to work in our city right now,” he said.
“There are tons of employers I’m hearing from that can’t get staff because their staff come up, can’t find housing, can’t rent anything – and leave. We need to change how we’ve been operating, because how we’ve been operating has not solved this problem.”
Speaking to Cabin Radio on Wednesday, Alty emphasized the scale of the challenge ahead and the pressure to get housing right (it’s often a hot-button issue).
“I read everybody’s emails, everybody’s posts, I take that into consideration. I also take into consideration the discussions that happen outside of council meetings – everybody that calls me, crying, because they can’t get housing,” the mayor said.
“That’s really tough to hear and be on the other end of that call. It’s not an easy job. The councillors have to balance a lot.”
Alty hopes residents come to see the projects not as a loss, but as an opportunity to gain friends and neighbours and benefit their community.
“Habitat for Humanity had 50 people apply for two homes last year. They may be getting money from the federal government, but when we only have one lot for sale at the city level, we’re stifling their ability to provide affordable housing,” she said.
Asked on Monday why other areas of Yellowknife didn’t make the list, White told councillors the five targets presented were those that “could see the highest and best return in what we feel would be a reasonable amount of time.”
“None of this is locked in stone,” said Alty in the evening’s final remarks. “There are more discussions to come. Getting more land on the market is a long process and this is just step one.