At the beginning of my last post I presented two questions that I don't think we are currently making adequate attempts to answer. The first was "how can we revitalize our downtown?"
The second question and the topic of this post is "What would a revitalized downtown Yellowknife look like?" And for the sake of spurring discussion, I'll add a time frame. 20 years from now, if we have achieved revitalization, what will our downtown look like?
In my first version of this post I droned on quite a bit about how I don't think the right people have asked themselves this question, namely city councillors and city planners. I won't repeat that here, but I do want to provide you with an image to illustrate the point that we need to have this conversation.
Most readers probably won't recognize the illustration above. It was produced in 2010 as part of the Smart Growth Development Plan. You can find it on page 22 of the Urban Design Initiative. The problem with the illustration is that to accomplish this feat of revitalization, you would have to first tear down a multi-million dollar and recently renovated mall, the Centre Ice Plaza. Clearly, this is not something that is likely to happen in the next 30 years. So my question is, where can we reasonably hope to accomplish revitalization? Which streets are we likely to be able to revitalize?
The 2002 Downtown Plan envisioned Franklin Avenue (50th Ave) as our retail main street. But as it stands right now, Franklin is more of a transportation corridor than a shopping district. Vehicles can’t park on it between 8am and 9am or 4:30pm and 6pm. Several blocks are occupied by new or recently renovated office buildings - retail dead zones - which aren’t going anywhere for the next 50 years. These aren’t the characteristics of streets that are suitable targets for retail revitalization, even over a long time period like 20 years. So if Franklin Avenue isn’t the answer, then what is?
Is it 50th Street? If you were to take a look at our various Franklin Avenue cross streets and consider the age and state of the buildings, 50th Street is a pretty good candidate. Even without City intervention (i.e. civic plaza and continued land assembly), several buildings on 50th are not likely to be around in two decades. The same can’t be said of most other downtown cross-streets.
But – and this is a big “but” – the mid block of 50th Street has the worst retail dead zone in the entire city on its northeast side – the Center Square Mall. Can any street become a retail hotspot with such a liability holding it back? For clarification, I consider the mall a liability due more to the fact that it’s an indoor mall without a single customer entrance on its entire 600 ft-long 50th Street facade than the fact that it’s half vacant (although the two issues are surely related). If the two REITs that own the mall were willing, could it be transformed from a liability into an asset? Is there even a conceivable way to accomplish this? If not, is there a way to overcome the mall obstacle by having a third party build a structure where the mall parking lot (which is owned by the City and is only informally a mall parking lot) now stands?
These are obviously pretty difficult questions to answer. But if we could answer them and come to a consensus on the location of our retail “main street” of the future, I think we would finally break free of the inertia that has kept us from making progress for the last fifteen years. Revitalization initiatives undertaken by the City would achieve concentrated and therefore noticeable results, confidence among residents and stakeholders would rise and momentum would build.
One of the initiatives we could undertake pretty quickly would be a revived Façade Improvement Grant Program. The last program failed for two reasons - it didn't target a small enough area (Old Airport Road, Old Town and fifteen or so blocks of downtown were eligible by the time the program was shelved) and we didn't have anyone assigned to working with businesses to access the grant. In other cities this role is filled either by city staff or by third parties who work closely with businesses on a daily basis (e.g. chambers of commerce or business improvement associations). Another program that has worked in other cities is similar to a facade grant but can be applied to improvements to the interior of new businesses. Edmonton’s Development Incentive Program is one example. Like the facade grant, an integral part of the success of such a program would be helping business owners access the grant, from filling out paperwork to working with interior designers. Besides creating new programs, other current revitalization tools could be tweaked to increase their effectiveness. Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars street-scaping at the periphery of the downtown (52nd Avenue) or beautifying blocks with no retail potential (52nd street between Franklin and 49th Ave) the City could concentrate streetscaping and beautification resources where they have a chance of making a difference. And while we might not be able to put an end to disruptive and aggressive behaviour across all fifteen blocks of our downtown, surely we could improve things on one street. We all know that’s something shoppers and tourists would appreciate.
Over the course of the next year, I’m hoping to encourage Yellowknifers to start asking these very important questions. And in fact this weekend I’m headed to BIABC/International Downtown Association's annual conference in Vancouver – which is sure to be packed with professionals who ask and answer these types of questions for a living. This will be my third time attending, but unlike the last two years I’ll be joined this year by two other City Councillors (Morse and Silverio), the City’s director of Communications and Economic Development and five members of the Yellowknife business community. I’m hopeful that we can not only spend many hours knocking around ideas, but also tap into the expertise of professionals in retail revitalization. I’m very optimistic that good things are going to come out of this, and I look forward to getting to work on solutions in the very near future.
If you’ve read this very long post in its entirety, chances are you’re someone who is very concerned about the state of our downtown and/or you’re generally interested in downtown revitalization, in Yellowknife or elsewhere. If so, I would really appreciate hearing from you on the two key questions posed above: what are the constituent parts of Yellowknife’s potential downtown revitalization solution, and what could a revitalized downtown Yellowknife look like in twenty years?