Old Town gateway apartment building set to pass council
A four-storey apartment building proposed for the edge of Yellowknife’s Old Town appears set for the next stage of permitting as a majority of city councillors expressed support.
The Mrdjenovich family hopes to construct a building near the intersection of Franklin Avenue and School Draw Avenue that would house 65 rental units: nine one-beds and 56 two-beds.
However, the building isn’t a permitted use for the area under existing bylaws and requires council approval.
That approval won’t be formally granted until later in the month, but five of the nine council members were in broad support of the proposal on Monday.
Four residents of the area appeared by video link asking councillors to reject the proposal, saying it did not meet the criteria for development near Old Town and would be an eyesore.
The developers themselves acknowledged “a lot of negativity” about the project. Milan Mrdjenovich pledged there would be no blasting and the result would be brand-new units for the same cost as existing, older units on the market.
Councillors will return to the topic later in May for a final decision. Niels Konge, Steve Payne, Cynthia Mufandaedza, Robin Williams, and Mayor Rebecca Alty all spoke in favourable terms on Monday.
Even if an initial “yes” from council is confirmed this month, the project will go the City of Yellowknife’s development office to continue the permitting phase – where large changes may yet be made.
Bending the rules?
The only question city councillors need to answer at this stage is one of “similar use.”
Yellowknife’s existing zoning bylaw for the area says a building of this size and shape can only be built if councillors decide it is a similar use of the land to other buildings in the neighbourhood.
City administrators, in a briefing note for councillors, argued this is the case. They cited townhomes on McDonald Drive as a similar, but not identical use.
Local residents who spoke on Monday concluded precisely the opposite. They say nothing in the area comes close to the same scale. One called the building a “280-ft wide, 50-ft high wall.” They say they welcome development but this plan should be dismissed and the developers told to come back with one better matched to the neighbourhood.
A City of Yellowknife graphic shows the height of the proposed new apartment building, bottom left, compared to the heights of other buildings in the vicinity. Resident David Gilday felt the schematic was “misleading,” arguing the Summit condos (six beige cubes above the proposed new building) are shown as taller but are only three storeys in height.
In particular, residents said councillors would be ignoring their current zoning bylaw – and the fact the planned building is almost five metres taller than the theoretical limit – if they give the proposal the go-ahead.
Residents accused councillors of rushing to embrace Yellowknife’s new community plan, under which the building could probably be permitted even without council intervention, but which is not yet in effect as it hasn’t been rubber-stamped by the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs.
Administration’s memo to council notes the community plan is awaiting final approval – but goes on, in part, to justify approving the building by referring to the still-draft plan.
“This document has no status. It has no effect. Therefore it cannot be used to support this development – and it is being used fairly heavily,” said resident Dave Jones, seizing on this.
David Gilday said: “All we’re doing is bending and twisting the bylaws to suit the desires of a developer.
“If you’re going to put four storeys in, put six storeys in. It isn’t going to make a difference. How far are you going to bend the rules?”
‘Trees to tundra’ on Old Town’s edge
Councillors Shauna Morgan, Julian Morse, and Stacie Smith agreed with those residents.
Morgan – who lives in the area – said approving the building as a similar use to others nearby would require “contorting logic and rules.”
“I can’t see a compelling reason why we should put ourselves through such contortions right now,” she said.
Morse said the development sits “right on the very edge” of the divide between downtown and Old Town, and should represent a gradual transition between the two. He thinks four storeys is too many.
“You don’t go from 300-ft trees to tundra,” he said, by way of analogy.
But the majority of councillors felt a case could be made for the building being a similar use.
A schematic for a new apartment building at Bartam Court, as circulated by the City of Yellowknife to nearby residents.
“Does it fit within the neighbourhood? Right across the street there are warehouses. That’s directly across the street from this development,” said Konge.
“We don’t want urban sprawl – we made that pretty clear. We want higher density. This development checks off all of our boxes we’ve been asking for.
“For me, this is a similar use. We can make this work.”
Payne said calling the building a similar use to others nearby was “not that big of a stretch.” Williams and Mufandaedza broadly concurred.
Mayor Alty noted: “The last apartment building built in Yellowknife was six years ago. Since then, two apartment buildings have burned down – a reduction of 50 units. There is a big need for rental units in the city.”
Could the design change?
The opinions expressed by councillors on Monday would suggest a vote of five to at least three in favour of granting approval. Councillor Rommel Silverio did not take part in the discussion.
The next question is whether, if approved, the building’s design evolves to accommodate some of the concerns raised.
City staff say the proposal “aligns with design standards” for the area. The briefing note for councillors states the site is in “close proximity” to the downtown and the building is “residential in nature … not dissimilar to other residential uses permitted in the zone.”
Milan Mrdjenovich, left, with father Mike looking on, presents to Yellowknife city councillors via video link on Monday.
The briefing note adds: “The proposed variance to the height is not expected to unduly interfere with the amenities of the neighbourhood or materially interfere with or affect the use, enjoyment, or value of neighbouring properties, the sidewalk, or School Draw Avenue because it is located adjacent to the toe of the bedrock slope.”
Try telling that to residents who appeared by video link on Monday.
“It’s three blue whales long,” said near neighbour Alan Ehrlich. “It changes how Old Town feels connected to its surroundings.
“The scale of this thing, the size of this thing, and how it conflicts with the setting it is proposed for, should not merit conditional approval.”
Cathy Cudmore, who delivered her speech on the issue while pointing her webcam squarely at the lot in question, said: “I don’t think four storeys should be allowed in Old Town. There are no four-storey buildings around.”
Morse, in a brief exchange with Mrdjenovich, asked if the building could be designed in a “more interesting way” while implying he felt the developer made buildings that “don’t look very good.”
Responding later on Twitter, Mrdjenovich – whose family owns the Nova Hotels group – said: “Everyone is entitled their own point of view.”
He added: “Personally, I think Nova has a wide variety of different ‘looks’ and each project is dependent on what we are trying to achieve. To say that we have one look is very short-sighted and arrogant.
“That being said, I respect his opinions like I respect everyone else’s. There are always things we can improve on, and we will always try to improve and modernize the way we do things.”
City staff suggested the possibility of creating two or three smaller buildings rather than the “wall” to which neighbours have objected. The extent to which that approach might raise costs and make the project less viable is not clear.
“We’re willing to work with City administration. There are still a lot of hurdles to get through before we get to the final product,” said Mrdjenovich.
Ending a discussion in which councillors veered dangerously close to designing their own building, Mayor Alty concluded: “It’s tough to say what goes into [the design]. Probably why the development office, versus council, gets to approve every façade.
“It’s challenging to balance 21,000 different ideas of what a nice building looks like.”