A new university campus should be built on Yellowknife’s Tin Can Hill, territorial and municipal staff said on Monday, a major announcement for Aurora College’s future.
City councillors are being asked to sign an agreement with the GNWT that confirms Tin Can Hill as “the intended site” for a new campus and begins the land transfer process.
Chris Joseph, who has been leading Aurora College’s transformation into a polytechnic university for the GNWT, said the college’s existing downtown building had “become an obstacle to growth.”
A new facility on Tin Can Hill would be, he said, a “spectacular site” with plenty of space, easy access to downtown, and the chance to integrate buildings with nature and the surrounding community.
“Having a strong and exciting location is important,” he said.
Charlsey White, Yellowknife’s director of planning and development, said Tin Can Hill was already designated as a potential site for a new post-secondary facility in the city’s community plan.
White said the municipality expected “respectful development of this important area,” a green space that is currently used by many hundreds of residents, particularly families and dog owners.
The memorandum of understanding – not yet approved by councillors – authorizes the city to begin transferring the land to the territorial government.
The city “will not seek payment for the lands under the understanding that the lands are to be developed as a polytechnic university campus,” the memorandum states. Nor will the city be responsible for any associated costs.
At the moment, only the selection of the site and transfer of land are being discussed. There is no finalized design or development application.
An environmental assessment and public hearings are anticipated before any development can be formally approved.
The memorandum states: “The GNWT and Aurora College will, through ongoing development of the lands, seek to preserve and enhance the natural setting and support a safe and healthy community [and] strive to create opportunities for the surrounding community to access the lands in a manner consistent with historic uses.”
How much of the hill is needed?
The exact size of the finished facility remains to be determined.
The territorial government presentation to councillors included a map that showed a daunting area of Tin Can Hill shaded in yellow, but that area represents only the land that could be considered for building, not the final footprint.
Joseph sought to play down the finished size of the campus.
“We have this very large space, over 300,000 square metres,” he said of the land under consideration. “The actual footprint of a polytechnic university is more in the vicinity of 25,000 square metres.”
A map in the City of Yellowknife’s presentation, while still only a concept, tried to provide a sense of how that might actually look.
It’s important to stress that the map, below, is a sense of how much space the buildings’ footprints may occupy and is in no way a final design or proposal. The city’s map suggested the facilities would take up only a portion of the hill, though which portion is not yet decided.
In a briefing note for councillors, city staff wrote: “The Tin Can Hill location is being proposed given it meets Aurora College’s interests in a land parcel that can meet institutional needs now and into the future.
“This location also meets the city’s interests in that it is adjacent to downtown, aligns with the community plan’s criteria for densification and use of existing services, aligns with direction that any future post secondary institution [be located] in the downtown, integrates with the community, can include ongoing public access to trails on the campus, and provides an opportunity to advance reconciliation.”
“Did you consider any other sites that met similar criteria to this one?” Councillor Julian Morse asked.
“We did look at sites across the city,” said Joseph, who added sites on the periphery of the city were ruled out as they did not meet the city’s needs related to economic stimulus.
“Central and distinct made sense. That narrowed the scope of opportunities in terms of availability of land, timing in which we could build, and something that meets the needs of the institution,” he said.
Morse asked about land adjacent to the NWT’s legislature and the Niven Lake residential area, which he said had been initially set out as an option for a campus.
“I’m just curious how that site got eliminated,” he asked.
“It was considered in the same way,” said Joseph. “Some land is on interim land withdrawals and opportunities for expansion would be limited, or at least uncertain, because they’re in negotiation with Indigenous governments.”
What happens to ‘beloved’ trails?
Morse also noted the value of Tin Can Hill’s trail network to many residents.
“The existing trail system is beloved by Yellowknifers. It is heavily utilized and one of the few areas where people can walk their dogs off-leash with close proximity to the downtown,” he said.
Both Joseph and city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett stressed preserving a large amount of that network, and integrating it, would be priorities.
Morse, too, acknowledged: “There’s a huge portion of Tin Can Hill that isn’t used by most people walking on it, that most people don’t step foot on. An existing use can be preserved and we can go forward with a new use as well.”
Of the overall proposal, he said: “It’s very exciting. Just five years ago, I don’t think we would have thought this was a possible thing coming from the GNWT. I think the Tin Can Hill site has potential to be a great site.”
Councillor Shauna Morgan said the vision was “quite compelling and could be a tremendous opportunity to move forward in this city, both for education and for the city to revitalize, bring in new residents. All kind of things could grow around this opportunity if it’s done in the right way.”
Joseph said the territory hopes development can begin as early as the 2023-24 financial year.