Yellowknife’s political leaders declared “our hands are tied” as they tried to support an entrepreneur’s bid to transform an old communications site into an aurora viewing venture.
Liang Chen, best-known in Yellowknife for his role in launching the Copperhouse restaurant, is trying to turn the old Iridium site at the far end of Kam Lake into a tourist attraction.
Chen’s plan involves transforming the existing concrete buildings into platforms for glass aurora-viewing domes, with another existing metal building repurposed into a small store, warming area, and washroom facility for guests.
“We’re not just leaving those things out there as eyesores, we’re changing them completely to benefit a new tourism business,” he said in a presentation to councillors on Monday. “Anyone on top of the platform, in that glass building, would have an unobstructed view of the entire surroundings.”
Chen says his idea will avoid Iridium – which no longer uses the site – having to scrap all its buildings, which would create “tonnes of waste” for Yellowknife’s landfill, and could instead increase the city’s tourist numbers by up to 2,000 visitors per year.
That’s where we encounter problem number one. The site has to transfer from Iridium to him.
Iridium, which supports Chen’s plan, holds a lease on the site till 2024. That lease assigns the land a specific purpose – telecommunications – which is nothing like Chen’s proposed tourism use.
Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s city administrator, explained to councillors on Monday: “The challenge is the lease has been identified for a specific purpose. We would need to wrap up the arrangement with Iridium, create an arrangement with Mr Chen, and there are a couple of steps there: terminate the Iridium lease, have council approve sole-source disposal of the land to Mr Chen, and include a conditionally permitted use for recreation.”
That’s all doable, although the City’s planning department is currently so weighed down with other projects that making this change quickly would mean delaying something else.
But there are two bigger problems.
Sole-source disposal of the land to Chen – giving it to him without anyone else being allowed to express interest or bid – is an unusual practice for the City.
On top of that, it means deciding how one parcel of land should be used right at the time the City is working on a new, much broader community plan, expected to be ready by the end of this year.
Community plans dictate what each area of a city should be used for. They help to control the way a community grows, ensuring it does so in a way that makes sense.
It’s possible that the finished plan may call for the land in question to be residential, not recreational – and if Chen gets the go-ahead now, ahead of the final plan, that could mean an incongruous aurora-viewing platform in the middle of a housing development. (Chen says he will adapt to the plan to ensure his land use fits in with whatever is required.)
‘We’re in quite the predicament’
Councillor Shauna Morgan told colleagues the whole community planning process would be pointless if council chose to make snap decisions in the interim.
“I do appreciate [Chen’s] attempt,” she said following his presentation. “However, I do want to honour our community planning process, which is not yet complete.
“First, we need to see that process through and have a clear sense of what we envision for this particular property before we go and terminate a lease with one party and negotiate a brand-new lease with another.”
That triggered a tirade from Councillor Niels Konge, who – in agreeing with Morgan that, ideally, the community plan takes priority – expressed despair at Yellowknife’s lack of available land.
“Mr Chen has been very creative,” said Konge, “and we all want to support him, yet we’re in quite the predicament because, as soon as we terminate that lease – and we allow Mr Chen to have a lease on that property – we have now sole-sourced land to Mr Chen, which isn’t fair to any other user in the city who perhaps had similar ideas. That’s a problem.
“Then, not only do we sole-source the land to a single individual, but now we have to go before the general [community] plan is complete and rezone that land to allow for a different use, in order for the business to actually work there. As soon as we do that, it doesn’t matter what the community plan says any more.
“So we really have our hands tied, here. I want to support business. I want to do it in such a way that we’re not supporting a business, but multiple businesses. Sole-sourcing land is not going to give the residents good value.”
Signs outside the Iridium site in Kam Lake, which is padlocked and off-limits to the public. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Konge placed the blame for much of this at the territorial government’s doorstep.
Yellowknife politicians at both municipal and territorial level have, for years, complained that large tracts of land within the municipal boundary are owned by the NWT government. Those parcels of land are made available to the City when it applies for them, on a case-by-case basis.
Konge, and others, feel the territory does a poor job of making that land available, obstructing the city’s ability to adequately manage its growth.
“The reason we’re in this situation is because, within our municipal boundaries, we have almost no land. Because we have no land, we’re putting uses that are incompatible with each other up against each other, which is causing friction. It’s very, very frustrating,” said Konge, who is a leading figure in the local construction industry.
“It’s very difficult as a city, as a councillor, to make plans – in terms of compatible uses and emerging industries – when we have nowhere to put them. In the past 15 years, every land application the City has made to the GNWT has been reduced or outright rejected.
“We’re at the mercy of the GNWT to actually transfer us land. Fred Henne Park, which is open for four months a year, is 30 percent of the land in our boundary. And we can’t accommodate Mr Chen, and we’ve had other tourism operators tell us they want to do things, and we can’t support any of them.
“I am so frustrated with the GNWT and how they treat us. They put is in a bad situation, as a city and as a council.”
A ‘piecemeal’ approach?
The territorial government doesn’t quite see things the same way.
“We work closely with the City. We always have, and we continue to build a relationship that we need to build,” Conrad Baetz, assistant deputy minister at the territory’s Department of Lands, told Cabin Radio on Tuesday.
“Over the last number of years,” said Baetz, “we have got quite a bit better at our ability to satisfy the needs of the City when it comes to their land acquisitions and the types of land that they require, and when they require it.”
Yellowknife MLAs have often referred to the territory’s approach to land as “piecemeal,” in that communities must petition the NWT government on a case-by-case basis and demonstrate their plans are “reasonable” in order for land to be granted.
Last year, Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne asked lands minister Louis Sebert “why the government still insists that we [give] piecemeal plots of land to the city on a request-by-request basis, rather than just give them the lands within the municipal boundary as a whole.” (Kieron Testart, the Kam Lake MLA, raised a near-identical question in February of this year, and Dehcho MLA Michael Nadli has asked the same thing of Fort Providence’s access to land.)
At the time, responding to Vanthuyne, Sebert said: “There is no policy to turn over all Commissioner’s [GNWT-owned] land within the municipalities to the municipalities. We need to have applications … we need to know the purpose for which the land is needed.
“We also have lands needs for our government, so we simply can’t turn over everything to the municipalities.”
Assistant deputy minister Baetz, speaking this week, suggested to call it a “piecemeal” approach is to mischaracterize how the department processes applications from the City.
“A lot of what we use to determine and assess land applications is how well it fits into their community plans. It’s not so much that it’s a piecemeal approach to things,” he said. “A community can come to us about a large tract of land for a subdivision, and we’ll consider how well that fits within their community plan.
“We do recognize that the land availability for the city, as well as across many communities in the territory, is front and centre,” Baetz continued.
“With respect to Yellowknife, we have had conversations with the minister, as well as the mayor, agreeing to look for solutions and trying to find ways to move things forward in a way that meets the needs of the city, and communities as well. If there’s something we need to do slightly different, well, we need to take a look at that.
“Simply because we’ve been doing something a particular way, doesn’t mean it’s still the best way to do it.”
‘Tourism is in trouble’
Where does all of that leave Chen, and his idea for repurposing the Iridium buildings?
Councillors were united in their praise for the concept and their desire to see him succeed.
“We don’t want to lose investors in our city because we’re waiting on a community plan that might take a little bit longer. I’m frustrated. We would hate to lose you as an investor in our city,” said Councillor Cynthia Mufandaedza.
To get around concerns about the community plan, Chen promised councillors he would – come the year 2024, when the lease expires – happily change his operations to whatever the City’s plan required.
“What I’m proposing is the use of this land will not, in any shape or way, affect the community plan. Whatever the plan says five years from now, I’m prepared to conform to that,” he said. “That’s the whole point of only asking for a five-year lease. After the lease term is over, the land will be zoned to whatever it is supposed to be zoned to.”
If that means ripping down his tourism venture and replacing it with houses, said Chen, he’ll do it – and he’ll foot the cost for disposing of Iridium’s concrete buildings.
“We need to be opening doors, not necessarily closing doors to developers,” said Councillor Robin Williams. “I would like to see this go through the process that’s necessary to transfer that lease.
“I think it’s great – reuse of a structure, fantastic. Increasing our suite of products we can offer to tourists is excellent. I’m in full support of doing what we can to help Mr Chen out.”
Konge, for his part, urged people to vote this fall.
“We have the GNWT, who won’t transfer land to the communities or City in order to support tourism, and they themselves won’t support tourism, even though they say the next big thing in the NWT is tourism,” he declared. “I’m so glad an election is coming up soon.”
(Chen told councillors he had asked the territorial government for land but been informed no commercial ventures can be established within a three-kilometre buffer zone around Highways 3 and 4. Blair Chapman, the NWT government’s director of lands administration, told Cabin Radio that’s not the case – that restriction applies only to recreational cabins, and other commercial ventures are progressing – and insisted he told Chen as much by email a year ago.)
Councillors will return to re-examine their options at a future meeting.
“Tourism is in trouble. I don’t think it can wait two years,” said Chen, referring to the length of time it may take for a community plan to be in place.
“The worst thing we can do is do nothing, and let tourism die,” he warned councillors. “If the world decides we are not a good place for aurora tourism, there is not much we can do to revive that thought.
“By continuing to do nothing, that is most likely what’s going to happen.”
Correction: 15:48 MT – July 11, 2019. An earlier version of this article stated that Chen’s plan would require the land to be rezoned. In fact, that’s not necessarily the case.