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Hoarfrost gathers on the branches of a tree next to. a vacant lot in downtown Yellowknife in February 2019
Hoarfrost gathers on the branches of a tree next to the vacant 50/50 lot in downtown Yellowknife in February 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Plan to build 180 homes on downtown Yellowknife lot is dead

An ambitious plan to sell Yellowknife’s 50/50 lot for $1 so a developer could build 180 downtown homes has been abandoned.

The lot, so named because it sits at the intersection of 50 Avenue and 50 Street, is a central slice of land that has lain empty and bereft of a clear vision for more than a decade.

The City of Yellowknife bought the lot for $1.45 million in 2014, hoping to use it to lead a wholesale revitalization of the flagging downtown area, but ultimately nothing happened.

Then, last year, the city dramatically revealed it was preparing to offload the lot for a single dollar. In return, developer Holloway Lodging would build a 180-unit complex, giving the city much-needed housing and finally solving the 50/50 problem.

Now, the deal is dead.

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In a statement, Holloway – which also owns half of the next-door Centre Square Mall – told Cabin Radio it had reviewed a request for proposals the city issued for the 50/50 lot, had further assessed the feasibility of its proposed project, and “determined that we would not be moving ahead.”

No detail was provided regarding the factors behind that determination.

Holloway had advanced sufficiently far down the path toward building on the lot that its chief operating officer, Rob Sherman, appeared before city councillors to discuss the project last year.

By presenting to council and submitting a development proposal, Holloway had achieved two of the four deliverables needed to move ahead with a build – the others being a site plan and documents setting out how the building would fit into the surrounding area.

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But in a statement on Friday, Sherman told Cabin Radio that Holloway and the city had never reached an “agreed plan to sell the lot to Holloway” despite council authorizing the city to enter into a purchase agreement. (Sherman noted that technically, any company could – and still can – bid for the lot under the request for proposals process. In practice, city staff said Holloway’s proposal to build a 12-storey block was the only realistic submission received in years.)

Yellowknife’s inability to sell the 50/50 lot even for a buck casts doubt on the likelihood of the land ever again becoming more than parking spaces.

Asked how the proposal had collapsed, the City of Yellowknife stated: “Holloway Lodging has not purchased the 50/50 lot. The City of Yellowknife remains the land owner and this lot remains available for purchase on the city’s website.”

The city directed all further questions to Holloway. Even when pressed to simply disclose when Holloway had ended its interest – which could have occurred at any point in the past 13 months – City Hall responded: “The city does not provide information to the public on individual property matters.”

City Hall routinely provides information to the public on all manner of individual property matters. Examples include development approvals, tax arrears and even which houses looked the nicest at Christmas.

This is not the first time a proposal to transform the 50/50 lot has quietly puttered out of existence.

In 2015, two groups of architects put forward a $6.5-million plan that focused on creating a plaza and rejuvenating storefronts at the neighbouring mall. Some city councillors weren’t fans and it never went ahead.

However, at least one nearby housing project appears set to go ahead.

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A recent federal announcement pledged more than $20 million for a 50-unit housing complex a little farther down 50 Street from the cursed 50/50 lot.

Across the street, the status of a project to turn the vacant Bellanca office building into The Nest – a renovation that would create 72 apartments, announced in the summer of 2022 – is unclear. The company behind that announcement could not be reached.

In June this year, the NWT government said it had given The Nest’s owners $600,000 to help fund a biomass boiler that would deliver around 70 percent of the Bellanca building’s heating needs. “This project is scheduled to be complete by the spring of 2024,” the GNWT stated at the time.