Bright spots and blight downtown

With two major construction projects underway, a new library, cultural centre and condo buildings lining the waterfront, Whitehorse looks like a city on the move. At least it does on the south side of Second Avenue.

With two major construction projects underway, a new library, cultural centre and condo buildings lining the waterfront, Whitehorse looks like a city on the move. At least it does on the south side of Second Avenue.

Just across the street, empty warehouses and idle storefronts tell a different story.

Despite the economic boom brought on by a tremendous increase in mining and exploration in the territory, there are still plenty of empty lots and boarded-up buildings scattered around downtown.

Last year, city planners identified 26 “underutilized properties” south of Black Street.

However, not everyone’s definition of “underutilized” is the same.

While the city looks at a weedy vacant lot being used for parking as a waste, developers like Northern Vision see it as potential.

“I would say, if you got parking, that’s not underutilized,” said Rich Thompson, president of Northern Vision Development. “There is a need for parking, that’s for sure.”

With several commercial and residential projects complete, and more in the works, Northern Vision has been busy over the last few years.

“What we found is, when you build a quality product, there’s a good solid demand for it here in Whitehorse,” said Thompson.

Northern Vision owns several properties near the waterfront, including one identified by the city as “underutilized.”

The old Super Valu grocery space on Second Avenue has sat idle for over two years.

Loblaw holds the lease, and just renewed it for another five years in April. Loblaw declined to comment for this story.

Under the terms of the lease, Northern Vision has the ability to force Loblaw to do something with the space, and normally that’s what it would do. But, because there’s a good draw from the liquor store and there is ample parking, the other tenants in the mall are happy with the status quo, said Thompson.

“In an odd sense it’s kind of been beneficial for them,” he said. “It’s unusual, but that’s kind of the way it is over there.”

Most of the properties that the city identified as “underutilized” are privately owned.

When the city reached out to those owners, it found that the reasons for the lack of development were as varied as the owners, said city planner Ben Campbell.

It seems the devil is in the details.

“These lots will get developed, it just takes time,” said Susan Rogan, who along with a partner owns two vacant lots on Lambert Street.

“Money doesn’t just fall from the sky, unless you’re the government.”

Rogan’s lots have been up for sale for years but it was only in the last few weeks that they got a legitimate offer for the property.

“It really comes down to finances,” she said.

That’s what’s holding up development for Paul Heynen, who along with his brothers owns an abandoned warehouse just across from Whitehorse Elementary.

They’ve also had their property up for sale for a while, but no one has shown much interest in it.

Heynen figured that if they tore the building down it might improve the chances of a sale, but that’s going to cost more than $100,000.

“You don’t think it’s going to be that expensive and then you get into it and you realize…” said Heynen.

Just the tipping fees at the dump, excluding the concrete, are in excess of $40,000.

The city did consider waving tipping fees at the dump as a development incentive, but ultimately decided that it would cost too much.

Instead, they created a tax waiver for developers looking to build new rental units.

The city has a 20-year plan for revitalizing the downtown.

The Downtown South Master Plan calls for creating an “urban promenade” along a portion of Robert Service Way that would be a mix a commercial and residential development.

But that’s a long way off.

Right now, city planners are looking at the feasibility of building a berm along the escarpment, which would open up new land for development.

The city also recently passed changes to the Zoning Bylaw, that, among other things, relax building-height restrictions and are designed to help increase density downtown.

With the high price of land it’s something developers have long been clamouring for.

Over the last six years, property prices in Whitehorse have doubled, but now they may be leveling off as the economy cools.

The Yukon Chamber of Mines reported that there was a drop-off in exploration activity this year.

With the equity markets in the toilet, the chamber dialed back its projections for this year by $50 million. However, the $200 million it expects to be spent on exploration in 2012 is still double the Yukon’s 10-year average.

And mining production is going strong.

Production from the territory’s three active hardrock mines is worth about $600 million this year, five times the amount it was only a few years ago,

But building permits have also dropped this summer.

The Yukon bureau of statistics reported a 25 per cent drop in the value of building permits this year compared to 2011.

However, there’s still optimism out there.

While the “industrial commercial market is a bit soft right now,” Thompson said, there has been a lot of interest in the new commercial building that Northern Vision is developing behind Boston Pizza.

“I wouldn’t consider it a big challenge getting that one filled up,” said Thompson. “It sells itself in many respects.”

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com

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