What to do with Yellowknife's 50/50 lot? Experts say there's no easy answer

Two Ottawa-based development experts made a number of recommendations around how the City of Yellowknife can spice up its downtown during a meeting at city hall this week.

One recommendation: Make it available for festivals or pop-up markets

Rodney Wilts said there is no easy solution to the question of what to do with the 50/50 lot, but some options include creating development incentives or changing zoning rules. (Kirsten Fenn/CBC)

Two Ottawa-based experts say there's no "silver bullet" that will transform the parking lot at the corner of 50 Street and Franklin Avenue — known as the 50/50 lot — into an exciting space that will help revitalize downtown Yellowknife.

That's what the pair from the development agency Theia Partners told city council at Monday's municipal services committee meeting.

They were there to present a report on how the city could revamp the 50/50 lot as part of a larger effort around revitalizing the downtown core.

Two development experts from Theia Partners made a lengthy presentation to city council Monday, suggesting a number of ways the city could make its downtown core, including this lot on the corner of 50 Street and Franklin Avenue, more exciting. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

"Given that we don't have any kind of silver bullet sitting on that site right now, what can we do to make that site as attractive as we possibly can?" said Rodney Wilts, who put the report together with his colleague Jeff Westeinde.

Among their recommendations was the idea to make the 50/50 lot more appealing to developers by offering development incentives or changing zoning rules.

They also suggested the city could encourage more people to live downtown, and make the 50/50 lot available for civic use — like festivals or pop-up markets — at a cost of $1 a day.

"Downtown, at the end of the day, is the heart of your city," said Westeinde. "The heart is what's going to make your city pump."

The city spent $25,600 for Theia Partners to advise the city on the 50/50 lot, a downtown revitalization strategy, downtown economic development, and whether there is a need for a city land development company, according to city spokesperson Iman Kassam.

50/50 lot also studied in 2015

This isn't the first time the city has commissioned a study on the 50/50 lot, which the city purchased a few years ago for $1.4 million.

In 2015, consulting architect Simon Taylor came up with a design plan for the parking lot that proposed ideas like turning it into a plaza with space for vendors, creating a gathering circle with a fire pit, or setting up an art studio.

The design concepts were part of a downtown revitalization and business incubation project, which also included public consultation, engagement with different stakeholders, and a market analysis, said Kassam. The entire project cost $300,000, with $175,000 funded by the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, she said.

Councillors say they never followed through on the 2015 report because it wasn't up to snuff with what they wanted to see done with the space.

In 2017, city council approved another study for the lot — a $75,000-multi-use building study for the 50/50 lot. That study is now on hold, said Kassam.

This time, councillors are more optimistic.

"The plan that was presented [Monday] is, in my words, bang on," said Coun. Linda Bussey.

She said the new plan is no "pie in the sky," but presented options she thinks the city can actually achieve.

For Coun. Adrian Bell, one crucial difference between the 2015 study and the latest report is that it was written by developers.

Coun. Adrian Bell said an important point about the report presented Monday is that it was created by developers. (CBC)

He said there hasn't been a great deal of land development expertise at city hall or on council, and that could have contributed to development at the 50/50 lot falling to the wayside.

"It's something we needed to do five and a half years ago, and we even more so obviously need to do it today," said Bell.

However, Coun. Rebecca Alty said it's a "challenging time" for the report to be coming to council, given there is a municipal election coming up on Oct. 15.

The 2015 report was also presented right before an election.

Alty said the report from Theia Partners is more flexible than the 2015 study, and she hopes the next council won't forget about it.

The city's administration is expected to come back to council with recommendations on what to do with the report.