Yellowknife councillors examining a draft zoning bylaw reinstated a handful of permitted land uses in a residential area after they had been removed from the document – to the dismay of some residents.
The first draft of Yellowknife’s new zoning bylaw, which dictates what can be built where, created a “residential central” area near the city’s downtown – dubbed RC for short – that allowed a range of commercial uses alongside housing.
After complaints from some homeowners who feared a slew of businesses cropping up in their neighbourhoods, city staff stepped back, creating a derivative of the residential central zone named RC-1. In RC-1, nine commercial and institutional uses were deleted, resulting in much more limited scope for commercial development.
But on Monday this week, led by Mayor Rebecca Alty, councillors put some of the commercial uses back again.
In a lengthy discussion, Alty suggested four land uses be reinstated in RC-1: food and beverage services, commercial recreation, convenience stores, and commercial urban agriculture.
Justifying that step, the mayor said she wanted to hear from more residents before removing those uses. She said one person had already expressed concern about the exclusion of commercial recreation, a type of development that includes the likes of commercial playgrounds, bowling alleys, gyms, “outdoor tourism activities,” and retail sales.
“I know we’ll hear an earful, but that’s what I’m looking to hear,” said Alty.
Many councillors agreed.
Niels Konge said he felt the city “swung the pendulum too far” in responding to criticism from some residents by creating the RC-1 zone. He said allowing a variety of land uses is important and suggested those happy with the changes were less likely to contact the city than those with concerns.
“I believe in my core this is what we need to make the city more liveable and better,” he said.
Konge added while residents may focus on their own neighbourhoods, council must think of the city as a whole.
An entrenched position?
Some residents are already unhappy about the partial reversal.
In an email from residents in the 50A Avenue area shared with Cabin Radio, community representatives expressed opposition to change in their neighbourhood and called council’s decision a “disappointment.”
“It will be much more challenging to convince the mayor and some councillors to move from what appears to be a fairly entrenched position and amend the bylaw,” the email reads.
The latest draft of the zoning bylaw is not set in stone, however. Residents can still provide written submissions to the city or present at a statutory hearing on the bylaw set for November 27. Alty said she is open to making land uses in the RC-1 zone discretionary – meaning they would still need council’s approval – or removing them entirely if that’s what residents want.
The city has so far received more than 90 written submissions in response to the bylaw. That included a petition with 36 signatures in support of the proposed changes outlined in the initial draft.
Alty said she looks forward to what she anticipates will be a “lively” discussion and encouraged people to think about their dreams and fears for their neighbourhoods, so the city can work to address them. She said making changes to regulations in the bylaw is a better approach than banning land uses altogether.
The mayor stressed the new bylaw would not, in her view, open the floodgates to new developments overnight. She said change happens over time and is affected by factors like building costs, personal choice, and topography. She added some developments that concern residents may be prohibited by a closer look at the regulations, giving the example that a single home usually cannot be transformed into a huge apartment complex because of parking rules.
Yellowknife’s existing zoning bylaw was adopted in 2008 and has since undergone numerous revisions. The city says a complete overhaul is needed in order to implement the city’s community plan, which was adopted in 2020. That document is intended to help guide development in the city over the next 20 years.
In line with that community plan, the proposed new zoning bylaw promotes infill, densification, affordable living, growth, and response to climate change. The city has touted the inclusion of new permitted land uses in many areas as a way to cut red tape that can hamper affordable housing options, essential services, and business growth.
Alty said she believes the new bylaw will meet the needs of many Yellowknifers and is consistent with changes in cities around the world. She pointed to New Zealand, where politicians have introduced legislation to end single-family zoning in many cities in response to the country’s housing crisis.
Only in the past century, the mayor said, had segregation between housing and businesses become the norm in North America with suburbs seen as the “gold standard.”
Now, she said, demographics are changing and households becoming smaller – meaning not everyone can afford or justify a single-family home – while more people want to “work, shop and play in one place.”
Alty added businesses have said the lack of affordable and diverse housing in Yellowknife makes it hard to recruit and retain staff, while a polytechnic university feasibility study considered the same problem a particularly large barrier.
The mayor set out a vision of cafés opening in residential areas near the downtown, large garages transformed into artisan shops or yoga studios, and tiny homes serving as community commercial kitchens.
“I want to encourage us to think expansive and encourage lively neighbourhoods and opportunities for entrepreneurs,” she said.