EDITORIAL: 50 Street boondoggle

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Nearly two and a half million dollars spent and all the city has to show for its 50 Street revitalization efforts is a snow-covered pop-up park on one side and a parking lot on the other.

The city didn’t buy the three lots on the south side of the street for $975,000 – now home to the pop-up park — to leave them fallow and not collecting property taxes. And it didn’t purchase the lot on the corner of 50 Street and 50 Avenue – better known as the 50/50 lot — for $1.45 million in 2014 because it wanted to get into the parking lot business.

No, there were big plans. Or at least trial balloons. Former mayor Gord Van Tighem suggested the three lots, after the city purchased them in 2012, might make a good location for a proposed “eco-housing” project – a trendy term meant to encapsulate two of city council’s favourite topics at the time — affordable housing and climate change. But nothing happened.

Two years later, on the night council narrowly voted in favour of purchasing the 50/50 lot, council also voted to sell the three lots. The city initially had some lofty ideas for the 50/50 lot too. Yellowknifer was invited to a meeting by city officials where we were presented with images showing a row of fancy cafes and boutiques with ice carvings and a skating rink outside.

Now the 50/50 lot is also up for sale, reintroducing the hard lesson about local government buying land with too much ambition and too little vision. What we’re left with is the textbook definition of a boondoggle.

To recap: in 2014, the city pushed ahead with a $1.45 million purchase of the 50/50 lot to add to its accumulation of three lots bought in 2012 for $975,000. Yellowknifer wrote an editorial at the time stating council was “putting out a horse without showing people what’s going in the cart.”

Fast forward to 2019 and not much has changed.

A new council is in place with a new city administrator and a new urban planning team with a new capital projects on the horizon for taxpayer spending. A polytechnical university. A new swimming pool. A new fire hall. Possibly a new public boat launch.

But long-term plans for the revitalization of the downtown centre seem to have been lost by the wayside as ideas to introduce eco-housing, the outdoor public skating rink, a downtown treatment centre or a patio facade have all come and gone.

The city can’t avoid the reality that it has left unfinished work behind when it comes to the important file of downtown revitalization and has wasted city revenue and tax dollars on lots with no plan – and now, little prospect for sale. Until the city came along, the 50/50 lot’s former owner had been trying to sell it for more than a decade with no success.

Selling these properties would be in the best interest of the city and taxpayers but that in itself is not a plan. If the city can’t get new owners on board, it should push for some institutional investment from larger government partners.

Yellowknifer has long advocated for a cultural centre for the 50/50 lot showcasing the original Dene inhabitants of the area. Whitehorse has one but Yellowknife doesn’t. Get the Yellowknives First Nation on board and then pitch Ottawa and the territorial government to help cover the bill. Presumably, they would be loathe to say no.

The alternative is another half-decade plus of undeveloped, city owned lots in the heart of the city. How does that make sense?

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