The City of Yellowknife is planning a fresh drive to entice development on a vacant downtown lot – by selling it for the same price it paid five years ago.
The 50/50 lot next to Centre Square Mall, which currently serves only as space for parking despite its central location, has proved formidably difficult to develop for successive councils.
On Monday, councillors discussed a plan to issue a request for proposals in the hope of identifying a developer prepared to purchase or lease the land.
The City’s recommendation to councillors is that the 50/50 lot be sold for its assessed value of $1.45 million, or leased for five percent of that value annually. That price tag is what the City reportedly paid to acquire the lot in 2014.
“Over the decade we have seen all kinds of attempts to see what we can do on this lot,” said Nalini Naidoo, the City’s planning director, at a meeting of councillors on Monday.
A memorandum to councillors about the planned request for proposals states that the City would look for ideas that align with Yellowknife’s frequently stated goal of revitalizing its downtown.
However, Naidoo said the City wanted to avoid being too specific when asking for proposals, instead offering developers freedom to find solutions that might finally transform the lot from an eyesore to an attraction.
“We want to give proponents the opportunity to be creative,” she said. “When we are too prescriptive in what we’re asking for, we’re almost saying to people: ‘If you can’t meet this exactly, please don’t even give us your ideas.’
“So we want to give people some breathing room and creativity to come to us and say what they think could help.
“Do we know exactly what we want? No, we don’t know. Here’s an opportunity to say, what do the designers think out there? What does the public think? Can we work with a group of people to make something happen?”
Staff at City Hall said councillors would be closely involved in the process to ensure Yellowknife’s needs were met by any winning proposal.
Explaining ‘why now’
The request for proposals will only go ahead if councillors approve that course of action through a bylaw authorizing disposal of the lot.
Councillors speaking on Monday appeared supportive of the broad plan to attract a developer, but had questions about the approach.
Niels Konge queried the stated lease value, expressing concern that the City could be undervaluing the lot – which would have, he said, a consequent impact on others in the leasing business.
However, Konge also said: “I’m quite pleased to see we are actively going to try to do something with the 50/50 lot.”
“I am excited to have this conversation start,” said Shauna Morgan, though she asked City administrators to make sure they communicate with residents about why a fresh bid to redevelop the lot is being launched.
“Is there a way we can explain to the public … why now? Why are we suddenly ready now?” She asked. “And is there something we can say about why we are excited to develop this now? Some kind of package that makes clear to people why we are doing this now, and why this is an exciting opportunity?”
City senior administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said her staff would “make it clear that we are open for business and think this is an amazing opportunity for the right developer to come along.”
In July last year, independent consultants presented a report on the lot to councillors in which five main recommendations were made:
- Have lawyers review development rules regarding the site – what, and where, can and can’t be developed?
- Upzone the lot – in other words, increase the flexibility around what you can and can’t develop there, including the potential height of any development – to broaden the range of ideas developers have
- Explore new incentives to attract buyers for the lot
- Advertise the site’s availability as an event venue and vacant space
- Work with the mall to encourage investment, invest in surrounding properties to increase the lot’s desirability, and continue to invest in support for homelessness and addiction
The report listed a range of potential uses for the lot, from transforming it into a boutique hotel through to using it as a site for festivals and pop-up markets.
A boutique hotel, the consultants said, would take advantage of the space’s central location, promote tourism, and complement surrounding buildings.
In 2015, the City considered a plan to turn the lot into an open-air plaza at a cost of $6.5 million.
That proposal, which relied on the two owners of Centre Square Mall agreeing to provide funding, never went ahead.
At the time, then-councillor Rebecca Alty – now the mayor – said she felt another open-air plaza would compete unnecessarily with the nearby Somba K’e civic plaza outside City Hall.
Alty and Konge are the only two people remaining in municipal politics from the council that voted to purchased the 50/50 lot in 2014. Both voted against the decision.