Abandoned and underdeveloped

A brisk, downtown walk can take you past several abandoned buildings and vacant lots, where you might almost expect to see tumbleweeds drifting by.

A brisk, downtown walk can take you past several abandoned buildings and vacant lots, where you might almost expect to see tumbleweeds drifting by.

The 20,000-square foot site of the former Esso station, on the corner of Second Avenue and Hanson, is one example.

After years of uncertainty, it was recently declared fully remediated and put on the market for $875,000.

It’s a prime piece of real estate, just like the building that formerly housed the Dairy Queen, located just a few blocks north.

When contacted earlier this week, the family listed as owners of the former ice cream shop declined to comment about its future.

But they did say there were no immediate plans for the property because of the state of today’s economy.

***

Those aren’t the only empty spots in town.

In March, the City of Whitehorse hired Vector Research to complete an assessment on the potential for new development incentives for downtown properties.

Through their research, the consultants determined that approximately 88 lots – or eight per cent of downtown properties – were considered “underdeveloped,” meaning they have an assessment value of under $10,000.

The properties are well-dispersed throughout the downtown area, Vector concluded, and ownership is spread among a diverse number of people.

As a result, no punitive measures against property owners – such as increased taxes – were warranted at this time, they reported.

***

In a piece for the Yukon News last year, local lawyer Graham Lang suggested two ways of dealing with vacant lots and abandoned buildings in downtown Whitehorse.

The first was to implement a vacant building bylaw that would penalize property owners after a period of time, if they ignored maintenance on their buildings.

It’s a model that’s been used in Winnipeg since 2010, among other Canadian cities. Owners face fines of over $1,000 if they want to board up their buildings but fail to acquire the proper permit to do so, for example.

Lang also suggested re-adjusting the city’s commercial property tax system to encourage development.

***

Whitehorse city councillor John Streicker said downtown densification was identified as a strategic direction for council some time ago.

Part of that direction, he said, was to look at underutilized lots and find ways to encourage their use.

“We explored both carrot and stick – the incentives and the disincentives,” Streicker said this week.

Members of council, along with city administration, looked at the Winnipeg model and concluded that it wouldn’t work for Whitehorse.

Winnipeg had large clusters of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, while Whitehorse doesn’t have that issue, Streicker explained.

“Basically we looked at what current systems we have, how we can improve them, how to streamline development so we don’t provide too many barriers,” he said.

One example Streicker gave was how the city could potentially waive its development cost charges (DCC).

Those charges are usually levied on land developers who build living suites and put aside for the funding of future growth.

“They have little impact on infrastructure, yet they can have a large impact on the increased dwelling supply in a city,” Mike Gau, director of development services, said.

“To spur that development on, it was suggested that we look at waiving that cost charge because suites are helping keep those future growth costs down. If we’re going to add any financial incentives, that is a good candidate.”

The idea will be presented to council for consideration in late August.

***

In their final draft report to the city, Vector Research consultants made nine recommendations.

One was to provide grants to assess the feasibility of potential projects for underdeveloped lots in the downtown area.

Another suggested preparing information packages for potential developers regarding the remediation process, and what funding might be available for that.

At a Council and Senior Management meeting last week, members of council directed city administration to clarify the meaning of population density in downtown Whitehorse, and to have a consultation process with residents of the Old Town neighbourhood to clarify zoning in the area.

It’ll be part of the city’s Downtown Plan planning process for 2016.

“We did some work with Old Town residents a few years ago, we had a lot of applications coming to council for approval to build multiple family developments there,” Gau said.

“But there was a lot of push-back on that. The city has a lot of policies pushing density in the downtown area so there was a bit of a collision there with the community.”

City staff have also been tasked with managing and updating a new vacant lot list for future developers.

It will also produce information on the development process and what that entails, as well as what to do if properties are contaminated and where money could be found for remediation.

***

There are plans already underway for some of the vacant lots in the downtown area.

Some of the land, such as lots in the Downtown South area – which extends north-south from Lambert Street to Robert Service Way, and east-west from Second Avenue to the clay cliffs – is owned by the Yukon government.

The city has already announced a partnership with the government to determine what to do with the vacant lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Rogers Street, an area almost two city blocks in size.

And over on Alexander Street, the city has recently doled out a significant tax break – up to $500,000 over 10 years – to the developer of a four-storey building.

It’s part of the Development Incentives Policy the city approved in Aug. 2011 and updated in April 2013.

***

Kirk Cameron was part of the council that approved that policy.

But before working as a councillor, he made a presentation to members of council in 2011 about the importance of densifying the downtown core.

Cameron, who resigned from his position earlier this year, said there is a certain “vitality and vibrancy” that comes with a more dense downtown centre.

“When you get a whole lot of people and the energy that comes with that, it has a certain feel to it and I think that’s really quite positive,” he said.

“I’m sensing we’re starting to get that in Whitehorse. You see places like the Watershed that pop up and that draws a certain crowd.”

Cameron said the land in the Downtown South area, in particular, is “wasted space” that needs to be addressed.

“It shouldn’t just sit there on the books.”

A cursory calculation suggests almost 10,000 more residents could fit into the downtown area if lots were developed using the density of the Bling Condos on Hanson Street, Cameron said.

***

But Gau said it’s a good thing for a city to have a healthy supply of vacant lots.

When businesses come to town looking for land to develop, they have options, he said.

If the percentage of vacant lots is too high or too low, you have to adjust your policies, Gau added – but according to the consultants, Whitehorse is in good shape.

“We have to think long-term and it takes multiple years to do a development,” Gau said.

“Things turn over in time.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at

myles@yukon-news.com

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