How to revitalize the downtown: a problem that has become almost as daunting as answering which came first, the chicken or the egg.
Tate Economic Research Group was commissioned for a $75,000 report on how Yellowknife could answer that question.
Sameer Patel, vice president of the research firm gave his report to council on Oct. 7, diving into details with councillors.
The research group examined the retail makeup of the town, demographics, population projections and engaged local businesses for nearly a year in the creation of the report.
The report shows that there is 630,000 square feet of commercial space downtown and only 23 per cent of it, or 150,000 square feet, is retail. The majority of business comes from the service industry.
Sameer Patel made many recommendations for the city and retailers, which include increasing ground floor window space with more ambient light. He also suggested installing a professionally managed downtown management organization.
He also spent time commenting on social issues downtown, which deters business.
“All of the stakeholder sessions were dominated with comments on the social issues,” Patell said.
He admitted to not being an expert on social issues but suggested installing more public restrooms, pressure washing sidewalks in the morning, improving exterior lighting and increasing visible policing.
He also provided another example from Ottawa where a Salvation Army was being put downtown and they were asked if any economic benefit could be drawn from its presence.
“We just said no. There’s no economic scenario where we can say a shelter over here can help retail over there.”
Patel highlighted the parking lot on 50th Street and 50th Avenue (the 50/50 lot) as an area of particular interest being the “notional centre” of the city.
Patel said a lot of focus should be put on the two blocks around that lot.
“There’s been a lot of thought put into the lot, a lot of studies done on the lot, but from our perspective we don’t feel that the lot needs to have a grand development on it,” said Patel.
“Maybe the fact a grand vision for the lot may be holding back the lot because I don’t think there is a grand vision. We can do some things on that lot.”
He suggested relocating the visitor information centre to the lot but also brought up the idea of a shipping container market which found success on a city surplus lot in Toronto.
“It’s not a permanent lot, it’s been very successful and went up without much infrastructure development,” said Patel.
“This is one example of something that could go on the 50/50 lot and does not sterilize the lot for the future if there’s something else that comes along but does help in terms of animating the lot.”
Centre square mall
Patell highlighted that nearly 20 per cent of all retail space is inside of malls, but 40 per cent of all vacancies are also within malls. Almost all of that vacant commercial space is located in the Centre Square Mall, which accounts for 35 per cent of total vacant space.
“The mall has a disproportional amount of vacancy,” said Patel
He went on to say that there were “endless hours” of debate within his team on what to do with the mall, but ultimately decided energy should not be wasted trying to revitalize it.
“In a typical market, we would say downtown malls have no future,” said Patel.
“What we find in most malls is that they’re too expensive to demolish. Most often we’ve seen them turn into office space.”
Coun. Julian Morse called the mall the “white elephant” of the downtown.
“I’ve come to the conclusion the mall is kind of a problem that we need to deal with,” said Morse.
“The question is just how to do it.”
A creative idea that was put forward was to swap the title of the mall for ownership of the 50/50 lot. The mall, as many failing urban shopping centres have done elsewhere in the country, would switch to an institutional use and house offices, while the lot could be used to develop new retail.
Moving the market
Coun. Niels Konge, who admits to being full of “crazy ideas” for the downtown, asked if Patel thinks the Farmers Market should be moved downtown in an attempt to spur business to which he said that “it should be at the 50/50 lot.”
“It brings people into the downtown who might not have gone to the downtown,” Patel said, “it adds a level of vibrancy that is being taken out of the downtown … and there’s potential to expand the market beyond just foodstuffs.”
Each councillor seemed to find at least a few items to approve of and agreed to accept the report for information purposes.
Morse said it was high-time for council to stand solidly behind plans to rejuvenate down town.
“As the saying goes: the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time is today,” said Morse.