Fill in the downtown

Whitehorse Mayor Bev Buckway knows there are tools at her disposal to get the underused and empty lots downtown filled with houses. But she doesn't want to use any of them, yet.

Whitehorse Mayor Bev Buckway knows there are tools at her disposal to get the underused and empty lots downtown filled with houses.

But she doesn’t want to use any of them, yet.

Meanwhile, residents are ferociously opposing infill and further development outside the downtown core.

Kirk Cameron, a former territorial Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre, gave a presentation to city council three weeks ago on “intensification.”

The city should start building on the vacant lots and derelict properties downtown right away, he suggested, offering his own home in the Bling condominium developments, near the clay cliffs, as a possible template.

At the time, Buckway agreed it was a great idea, but said city hands were tied because the empty space is private property.

Yet she’s willing to propose rules laying out what colour their houses can be, a suggestion for new housing developments that she has put before council.

And there are many ways to go about encouraging downtown development.

According to a presentation from Rues principales Foundation, a not-for-profit that works on sustainable development for municipalities in Quebec, more than 300 cases of vacant lot taxes have been applied in Brussels, Belgium, since 2003, resulting in more than 1 million euros a year being collected.

In Kitchener, Ontario, the municipal government offers to pay half the renovation costs up to a certain price and also offers interest-free and forgivable loans to encourage the development of vacant lots and storeys.

In Victoria, British Columbia, property owners have been given tax exemptions to help them restore, renovate and rebuild.

And here in Whitehorse, the town has utilized things like taxation to encourage lot owners to develop in the past, said Buckway.

But nothing will be done until a south-downtown charette, scheduled to begin this May, she said.

“We don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” she added, mentioning the city doesn’t know, exactly, what’s stopping property owners from better developing their lots.

But the charette is only for the area from Robert Service Way to Lambert Street, and the attendance for vacant or underused lot owners is optional.

“You always get better success when you have residents coming forward and asking for these kinds of things,” she said, referring back to Cameron’s presentation. “Maybe we’ve arrived.”

But the “maybe” is not enough.

Former premier Piers McDonald knows a thing or two about how government works – and the expensive, unsustainable situation Whitehorse now finds itself in.

He led the territorial government as leader of the New Democratic Party from 1996 to 2000, and worked as a minister since 1982.

“Lots of things I’ve done in the past have added to the problem we have now,” he said, talking about the town’s inclination to build out, spreading the city limits rather than filling them in. “It’s just easier, but it’s also infinitely more expensive.”

The money the town will forgo by giving subsidies or tax breaks will not even compare to what they have to spend to develop more raw land, he said.

“I think you can add 10,000 people in downtown Whitehorse and make it a much more interesting place without adding an inch of infrastructure.”

There are not many cities in Canada where you can drive at highway speeds within the downtown core, he said, suggesting the lack of traffic is a good indication the city’s population density is too low.

Building downtown would not only be cheaper, but developing an efficient transit system would be easier and the greenspace that draws people to this “wilderness city” would remain intact, said McDonald.

But Buckway has another excuse: downtown residents will object, she says.

“It’s like we have multi-family phobia in town,” she said. “Every time there’s talk about an apartment, it’s crazy.”

McDonald expected that response.

The demand for single-family lots has been a justification for developing more land for years, he said.

“But when we have built condos, they’ve been sold,” he said, conjuring up Cameron’s Bling once again.

There is a need for all styles of housing, and so all styles should be built, said McDonald.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at