If they build it, will you come?

Withered fireweed has long gone to seed along the railway tracks by First and Ogilvie in Whitehorse. You could say the same thing about the surrounding waterfront neighbourhood.

Withered fireweed has long gone to seed along the railway tracks by First and Ogilvie in Whitehorse. You could say the same thing about the surrounding waterfront neighbourhood.

You only need to walk a few blocks north of Main Street to begin to feel blight setting in. Few pedestrians venture this way, through a patchwork of isolated stripmalls and empty lots.

But there are signs of green shoots: the Kwanlin Dun’s new cultural centre has already been roughed out. Large orange tarps that drape parts of the building flap in the wind.

When the building is complete late next year, it will boast a convention centre big enough to hold 1,000 people. It will also be the new home of the Whitehorse Public Library.

Next door, tall concrete pillars are being erected atop the pads for two other buildings that are also slated to be complete in late 2011. They’ll offer a mix of condominiums and commercial space.

High hopes hang on both projects. There’s been talk of revitalizing Whitehorse’s waterfront for decades. Whether this windy, desolate stretch of Whitehorse can be transformed into a vibrant part of the downtown remains to be seen.

Waterfront boosters hope the cultural centre’s construction will set off a virtuous circle, bringing other new businesses, and customers, to the surrounding area.

“The whole dynamic of the downtown will change,” predicts Ron Daub, executive director of the Vuntut Development Corporation.

That’s what his organization, the business arm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, is wagering, anyways. They’re steering the condo project, after partnering with the Ta’an Kwach’an and a group of private investors.

The project is dubbed River’s Edge. Computer renderings of it are easily recognizable as a Kobayashi and Zedda creation: the sparse design features a low, flat roof, cutaway balconies and cladding with wood highlights.

Each building will stand three storeys and hold 2,500 square feet.

The upper floor of each will feature six condos. Daub sees them being sold to mining executives, or empty-nesters who want to downsize to someplace within walking distance of downtown, and without the hassle of having to shovel snow.

The middle floor will be leased as office space. And Daub envisions the bottom floors being leased to businesses that need walk-in access, such as a dentist’s office, or even a cafe or small restaurant.

The buildings are oriented from north to south, to maximize exposure to sunlight. And they’re “highly energy-efficient,” said Daub, with triple-pane windows and two inches of foam outside.

Underground parking was considered, but geotechnical studies showed the water table was too high. “You’d be parking under the Yukon River,” said Daub.

Pricing isn’t yet complete. “We’re hoping to have it done by Christmas,” said Daub.

This is just phase one. There’s enough space on the lot for at least another phase, maybe two.

The buildings will cost anywhere between $12-20 million, depending, in part, on whether commercial leaseholders want their spaces fully fitted up or not.

Waterfront development dreams stalled in the summer of 2008, when Whitehorse failed to sell several nearby lots that were once the location of the old Motorways trucking yard.

Developers disliked electrical easements that would have prevented them from building on a large swath of land. Rejigged plans get around this problem. The city plans to put the lots up for sale in the next few weeks.

It, too, is banking on the Kwanlin Dun centre as being a draw for potential buyers.

“The commercial market is pretty soft,” said city planner Mike Gau. “But it’ll start moving because of the cultural centre. It’s a huge magnet.”

Contact John Thompson at