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'Yellowknife's downtown is dying.' Will this plan save it?

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An architect argues Yellowknife's downtown can be saved by relaxing parking rules, allowing larger residential blocks with fewer spaces – and more car-sharing.

Wayne Guy believes easing requirements for a certain number of parking spaces per home could be a "game-changer," making developers more likely to put up high-density housing downtown.

Guy is trying to convince the City to let him spearhead a pilot project on 54 Street, which would see a set of 12 "mini-condominiums" created with just two parking spaces.

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At least one of those spaces would be occupied by an electric car and charging station – paid for by the developer – for condo occupants to share. (The condo board would decide the exact rules.)

"People who want to live downtown are a different demographic," Guy told city councillors at a meeting on Monday. "[They are] people who want to live lighter, people who want more convenience. This is the only way to do it.

"Let's see what the public says about it. That's the key thing. If nobody steps up and buys, hey, now we know.

"But the bottom line is: for those people who get around with bikes, or walk, or take public transit, and want a better life – a downtown, convenient life – I think there is that market."

Each mini-condominium in the development would provide 320 square feet of space. Guy says each would retail for less than $200,000.

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Admitting the footprint per condo "sounds small," Guy said the units had been designed "like a boat" to be extremely efficient in how space is used.

"[Each condo] has more storage than your typical three-bedroom house in terms of closet area," he said.

"Granite countertops, top-end finishes. Small does not have to be cheap in terms of finish.

"We'd like to keep these under $200,000, all-in. Right now, there's not a lot on the market that can touch that."

Yellowknife's 50:50 lot on the morning of July 11, 2018

Areas of open parking, like the 50/50 lot, mean "you can practically see across the whole downtown now," Wayne Guy told councillors. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Right now, the bylaws governing development in Yellowknife would not permit such a development to go ahead with just two parking spaces configured in the way Guy suggests.

Usually, the City asks for one parking stall per unit built. However, since 2014, the City has allowed one designated car-share space to service up to eight units downtown (six elsewhere).

Guy's plan – one car-share space for 12 units – currently isn't allowed. He is asking councillors to consider amending the rules or giving the project special permission as a pilot.

In response, councillors on Monday suggested Guy turn the building's second parking space into another car-share spot, which would bring it within the existing regulations. He had originally intended for the second space to provide a spot for visitors, but said councillors' recommended change "would be very doable."

Is parking the root of all evil?

In the course of presenting his pitch to councillors, Guy warned them that "Yellowknife's downtown is dying" – and pointed the finger squarely at the city's parking bylaws.

Not mincing words, Guy attributed to parking rules the following ills:

  • "erosion of urban fabric;"
  • lowering the density of downtown;
  • under-utilizing land;
  • Franklin Avenue's dwindling number of stores; and
  • an increase in downtown vagrancy.

Guy argued that, as fewer people live downtown, vagrancy and crime are allowed to increase without large numbers of people providing communal oversight.

"Have downtown for people, not parking," he told councillors, urging them to relax the rules and allow larger developments with fewer spaces.

The current requirements, he claimed, had led to "huge tracts of parking that currently erode downtown."

He continued: "As old buildings are torn down, the economics of rebuilding aren't there. You have to tear down more buildings to accommodate parking for new developments, and it has a snowball effect."

Guy said people with the need, or desire, for one or more vehicles could still find homes in many other parts of Yellowknife. Relaxing the rules downtown, he suggested, would allow developers to cater to a class of people who want cheaper homes and are happy to walk or bike.

Putting more people in higher-density downtown buildings would, in turn, drive demand for public transit, he said. The proposed 54 Street development – on which Guy hopes to start work this summer – is close to two bus stops.

Thirty homes, one car

Councillors reacting to Guy's plan were broadly supportive, with Shauna Morgan suggesting his presentation was "good timing and matches the direction council has already stated that it wants to go."

"I love the fact that it's going to be one vehicle owned by the condo corp. I think it's genius," said Steve Payne.

Cynthia Mufandaedza added: "This is a great idea. We keep talking about downtown revitalization, ensuring a high quality of life, and reducing the cost of living. I think this is the way to go."

Yet both Mufandaedza and Niels Konge had concerns about Guy's stated ultimate aim of creating properties where 30 units can each share just one vehicle.

"I'm just not sure if it would be sufficient to have one car per 30 condos," said Mufandaedza, while Konge expressed surprise that a developer would consider the risk of such a building.

Guy, defending that ratio – which is not part of his 54 Street prototype – said Communauto, a Quebec-based car-sharing firm with operations across southern Canada, had produced research stating each of its vehicles could service up to 30 homes.

"In 2005, there was one car per household. By 2010, there was one car per person, and by 2015 there is one car for every bedroom in the community," said Guy.

"People are buying more cars but at a huge cost to downtown environments.

"Really, it's only been the leadership of communities across the country that have said: 'Enough, already.'"

Guy's proposal is likely to return for further consideration at a forthcoming full council meeting.