Economy
Yellowknife

Is this, or that, the Yellowknife you want? If so, how old are you?

Last modified: November 27, 2021 at 5:32pm


Saturday’s public hearing regarding Yellowknife’s proposed zoning bylaw rehashed many existing arguments but also recast the debate along lines of age.

The hearing was a legal requirement as the City of Yellowknife tries to pass a bylaw governing how the city is developed, such as which types of home and business can go where.

Saturday’s six-hour public meeting marked the last opportunity for residents to have input on the proposal, which has drawn months of debate primarily over the city’s attempt to allow a larger range of businesses in some residential areas.

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Staff will now provide councillors with ways to alter the draft bylaw, accounting for any issues raised on Saturday that are felt significant enough to warrant change.

City Hall says mixed-use zoning – allowing businesses and homes to co-exist – is climate-friendly and drives down costs. “It’s super old-school to say this area is commercial and that area over there is purely residential. These are not ways that cities can modernize, that cities can remain vibrant, that cities can remain affordable,” city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett told Cabin Radio last month.

Some residents, however, believe mixed-use zoning opens the door for incongruous developments that disrupt what they feel is the character of their neighbourhood.

In many respects, Saturday’s hearing reflected the municipal minutiae of how neighbourhoods are shaped and governed.

Within an hour, councillors and residents were arm-deep in the question of how many chickens or bees ought to be allowed in a yard.

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But the zoning bylaw sets a tone for Yellowknife that has broader, longer-term consequences, and proponents say the bylaw as written prepares the city well for the future.

“I’m very encouraged and excited about what this bylaw can create,” resident Tom McLennan told councillors. “I think it can provide better services for vulnerable populations, encourage new, local small businesses, create complete, walkable neighbourhoods, and more affordable housing options.”

The bylaw seeks to do that by making shelters easier to build downtown, allowing businesses like bars or convenience stores in neighbourhoods on the downtown periphery, and encouraging densification, in which more homes are built in the same space.

“I’ve struggled to find affordable housing in Yellowknife and purchasing a home remains a daunting prospect,” said McLennan, one of the younger residents to speak on Saturday.

“I worry that people in my demographic will leave Yellowknife. There are many people in this position and the proposed bylaw changes allow for some more innovative solutions to encourage people to remain in the community long-term.”

Cat McGurk said that while younger Yellowknifers had been all but absent in the bylaw’s consultation process, the proposed bylaw passed a baton from a way of life no longer sustainable to solutions for unmoored generations.

“Barely any of us believe we’re going to retire, either because we can’t afford to or don’t think we’ll live to see it,” McGurk said of her age group.

“It’s hard for us to put energy into combating the values that put us in this position. We simply don’t have the capacity to hold our own against retired boomers.

“As a person under 30 I support this bylaw. I want to grow old in a city I can easily get around. My generation is keen on multi-family dwellings. We don’t like cars and we hate ornamental lawns. Our neighbourhoods will look very different from the ones generations before us built.”

‘A reasonable residential experience’

McLennan and McGurk were two of the three residents to speak in clear favour of the bylaw, joined by Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce president Rob Warburton.

Two others spoke nominally in favour but did so primarily to support the city’s recent Grace Lake backpedal, whereby planners put back a green-space buffer zone they had deleted north of that neighbourhood. Without it, an industrial zone would have been allowed closer to homes.

Nine people spoke to oppose the bylaw. There were 28 written submissions, of which six were in favour and 22 opposed.

Opponents say the bylaw leaves their neighbourhoods too vulnerable to significant change. They say the earlier decision of some councillors to reinstate some business types in what is called the RC-1 zone – neighbourhoods surrounding the downtown – was ill-judged.

City planners, based on residents’ feedback, had removed businesses such as bars and convenience stores as permitted uses in the RC-1 zone – an example neighbourhood being 50A Avenue, where several of Saturday’s speakers said they lived.

Council subsequently voted to put those uses back and hear more from residents.

“What we all want is assurance that we will continue to have a reasonable residential experience,” said former councillor Linda Bussey on Saturday, “not encumbered by the disruption of excessive traffic on a narrow street, pressures on parking that cannot be accommodated, and negative impacts on our quality of life caused by an incompatible mix of targeted commercial and residential use in our area.”

Bussey said the likes of daycares, care homes, tourism businesses, or educational uses could be tolerated, but even then only on a discretionary basis.

Tom Hall said uses like restaurants, convenience stores, and urban agriculture – the source of the chicken question – were “all wholly incompatible and should not be included.”

“One of council’s stated goals is the revitalization of the downtown. That has not materialized to any meaningful degree,” said Hall.

“Now, the approach appears to be to abandon the downtown and simply expand a potential commercial sphere beyond the downtown.”

Opponents perceive the bylaw to contain little obvious limit to the scale and intrusion of potential business developments. City staff say mechanisms both in the zoning bylaw and beyond would help to control that.

More broadly, some residents feel the bylaw removes their ability to have a say should a development arise in their neighbourhood that checks the bylaw’s boxes but, in their view, does not fit.

Beyond the question of mixed use, Kenny Ruptash told councillors work camps needed to be more thoroughly provided for in the bylaw, with major projects set to create hundreds of jobs in the coming years. City staff said work camps did a poor job of integrating people into the community but Ruptash’s suggestion would be looked at. Ruptash said the city’s housing market could be unduly disrupted if camps were not encouraged, such is the expected influx.

Ruptash also suggested that the city designate lots that receive services like water and sewer and lots that do not. At the moment, he argued, the city bans developments like caretaker suites in the Engle Business District because it does not want to foot the bill for providing the required services. Designating a lot unserviced, he said, would allow caretaker suites and other uses while making clear that the developer must provide those services.

Unique city or change-resistant?

Council must now consider which residents’ version of Yellowknife it believes, 10 or 20 years from now, most people will want and be able to occupy.

“Anyone who’s lived here for any length of time – and I was born and raised here – knows Yellowknife is a unique city, with unique neighbourhoods, and a unique history of development,” said Hall, a 50A Avenue resident, who dismissed suggestions that Yellowknife should look south for inspiration.

“The approach here appears to be that we can take a southern model and simply overlay it on the city and everything will be wonderful. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Hall rejected McGurk’s argument that the city needed to move on from a model that worked for older generations.

“I always find it interesting to hear that people around my generation are responsible for all the problems and don’t know how to develop a community,” he said, “despite the fact that many of us have invested 50 or 60-plus years living, working, and helping to build a community.”

But McGurk said a city of single-family homes was no longer sustainable in a world where barely anyone below a certain age can afford one.

Moreover, she said, the Yellowknife she envisages already exists around many of the homes considered the city’s most desirable.

“There’s something special and worth cherishing about Old Town,” McGurk told councillors.

“And you know why there’s so much character and what makes it so unique? It’s because you can leave your office at 5pm and you can walk to Weaver and Devore and buy a new toque on your way to your reservation at Bullocks, and then you can end the night with a pint at the Woodyard and safely stumble home to McDonald Drive. Much of Old Town has always been zoned for mixed use. That’s what makes it special.

“Things have to change. If, when I’m 50, things haven’t changed? Well, I might be dead. Or struggling in some post-collapse world where zoning and public hearings are a faint and distant memory.

“It sounds like a laugh to equate the passing of a zoning bylaw to the environmental and economic collapse of society, but it’s resistance to change that’s the real killer.”

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