More than 70 people packed into a hotel conference room in downtown Whitehorse recently to discuss the future of the Old Town neighborhood.
There was plenty of coffee and muffins, but chairs were in short supply. It was a bigger crowd than city planners had expected.
The debate over Old Town’s future has been heating up, spurred in part by city council’s recent approval of two new, multi-family developments in the neighbourhood, despite some objections.
The densification of the Old Town neighbourhood is a controversial issue and residents are divided.
Surveying the meeting room, Mike Gau, the city’s manager of planning and development, could see that division laid bare.
Before the meeting started, he joked about bracing for the worst. But there were no heated arguments, no hyperbolic mud slinging. Instead the room buzzed with productive and lively discussion.
“I just can’t tell you how pleased I am with the outcome,” said Coun. Kirk Cameron. “It was really a good, good session.”
While high-density developments are allowed in Old Town, under current zoning bylaws they need the approval of council to move forward.
Following the development approvals in February, Cameron brought a motion forward to put a moratorium on all conditional approvals in Old Town until the city has finished rewriting its zoning bylaw this spring.
“Unless it’s very well-defined, I don’t want to be put in a position where I’m asked at council to approve something that is, what I consider to be, well outside of what the zoning bylaw allows for,” said Cameron. “My view is once we get a real sense of where the community wants to go, we can lock that into the bylaw, so then everybody’s got the same rules and they know what’s on and what’s not.”
As it stands now, it’s up to council to decide if a high-density development fits in with the “character” of the neighbourhood, something that has no solid definition.
“What we have is a subjective Official Community Plan and an objective regulatory policy,” said Gau. “Council has to decide if it conforms to the character, which is a really difficult place to be. It’s hard to say what’s right and be consistent.”
While he said he thought that “black and white rules” may be the way to go, he threw it open to the room.
“We’re here to talk about doing something different,” said Gau. “Absolutely everything is valid. We’re all ears.”
Over the course of the two-hour meeting, discussion flourished around each table as city planners and staff made notes on flip charts.
While there were still people that adamantly opposed any high-density development in the neighbourhood, it seemed that most people agreed, some more grudgingly than others, that it’s inevitable.
Everyone also agreed that the “character” of the historic residential area should be maintained, although they couldn’t agree on exactly what that character is.
For Roxanne Livingstone, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 31 years, Old Town’s character is defined by its lack of definition.
“I like Old Town because it’s eclectic,” she said. “It’s grown up in fits and starts.”
With the high price of land, which has doubled in the last few years, banning high-density developments in Old Town could be just as detrimental to the neighbourhood’s celebrated diversity as approving too many, said Livingstone.
“With just single-family (homes), we’re asking only rich people to come,” she said.
There were a lot of ideas bandied about over the course of the evening.
City planners are taking them all in. They’ll compile a report that will be posted on the city’s website. They have also committed to follow this meeting up with another one later this month.
Having this sort of informal public discussion goes a long way to making people feel engaged in the process, said Cameron.
“Not everybody was uniformly on side with everything being said, but there were some significant themes that emerged from the Old Town residents that I think planning will capture,” said Cameron.
“It’s not just coming from administration now, it’s coming from the citizens.”
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