Pricey pads to pop up downtown

Welcome to the changing face of downtown Whitehorse. A handful of developers are banking on the savings accounts of empty-nesters and single…

Welcome to the changing face of downtown Whitehorse.

A handful of developers are banking on the savings accounts of empty-nesters and single professionals to turn some city residences from decrepit single-family dwellings to upscale apartments.

“It’s the market, basically; I think five or 10 years ago nobody would have been developing these, not to this scale,” said developer Gordon Clark.

“When I came here in 1978, downtown was the last place you wanted to live. Even in the last few years it’s been the last place you wanted to live, but I think it’s becoming more attractive.

“It’s being revitalized, slowly but surely, starting in the Main Street area and spreading outward.”

Clark, partnered with Ken Eby of Cardinal Contracting, is planning an eight-unit luxury condominium development, dubbed Parkside Place, near Sixth Avenue and Main Street.

An elevator will link its four-storeys.

“We wanted to put an elevator in because we’re thinking about the aging population.

“I see it for seniors, retirees, people who are downsizing — and also for young professionals who work downtown,” said Clark.

Two-bedroom units in Parkside Place will run between $220,000 and $232,000 plus GST.

“It’s expensive to be downtown, with construction costs and the cost of an elevator, but there’s one thing I tell people — it’s never going to get less expensive.”

By early May, Clark plans to break ground on the development, and have Parkside Place ready for occupants by autumn 2006.

“It’s a bit of an experiment, but we’ll see what the response is,” said Clark, noting he’s already received many calls of interest.

And, if things go well, Clark is ready to expand. There is room to raise four buildings with a total of 32 units, he said.

Parkside Place is just one of a handful of condo developments planned for the city’s downtown core.

“We’re growing up,” said Yukon Real Estate Association president Michael Racz, of the downtown trend towards condo living.

“I think what we’re finding is more people that are retiring aren’t leaving, they’re staying in town and, as they get older, they move from a single-family home to a condo-style so they don’t have the yard work and maintenance,” said Racz.

“There’s always going to be people who want to live in their own house, but these new developments give people an option.”

Another development, dubbed the Hawkins Street Suites, a 16-unit upscale residential building, is planned for the corner of Fourth Avenue and Hawkins Street.

To date, 10 of the development’s condo units have pre-sold.

“So far, most of the interest has been from women in their senior years,” said Norma Waddington, a real estate agent from Coldwell Banker Redwood Realty.

The attraction is security, one-level living (with elevator), and proximity to Main Street.

“We were thinking of snowbirds — people who want to be away for four or six months and have a secure place when they go away, not have to worry about yards and upkeep,” said Waddington.

“This is an indication that condo living is here to stay,” said Racz, who is not surprised at the buyer interest in the developments.

The move towards condos has the city’s support as part of its efforts to revitalize the downtown core and increase its population density, said Whitehorse mayor Ernie Bourassa.

He attributes the growing popularity of condo units to the city’s changing demographics.

“When you look back 25 or 30 years ago you didn’t see a lot of retired people staying here,” said Bourassa. “They were the exception rather than the rule. But this community has changed so much that it’s become a very desirable place to retire in. It’s an attractive alternative and I think that’s what’s fuelling a lot of it.”

And more seniors are staying put, according to numbers from the Yukon statistics bureau.

In 1991, 9.3 per cent of the population was 55 or older. In 2005 the number climbed to 18.8 per cent, said Yukon bureau of statistics director Gerry Ewert.

The 55-plus age group has steadily increased every year for the past 14 years, despite the fact that the territory’s total population has both increased and decreased.

Although the city’s seniors cannot account for the entire trend towards condo living.

“Originally, we thought our target market would be young professionals, but it doesn’t seem to be any particular group of people,” said Jack Kobayashi of Kobayashi & Zedda Architects Ltd.

The firm has put up two condo developments downtown — Latitude 60 on Fourth Avenue and New Cambodia on Hanson Street —and has plans to build a third this summer.

The architects’ developments have been successful, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s not an ideal market to develop these things,” said Kobayashi. “We’ve did our first one three years ago and, since us, nobody has actually done it.

“It’s tough to make a go of these things. The numbers aren’t as rosy as you would think and that’s why you haven’t seen a lot of them,” he added.

“The proof is in the pudding — the price that you can demand for these things is still relatively low and the cost of construction is high.”

In the future, the city will also consider raising the building-height restriction in downtown Whitehorse from four stories to allow more units to be built with a smaller footprint on the land.

“I personally support it; I think it’s time to allow a higher height-limit in downtown,” said Bourassa. “In our efforts to get people to live downtown we have to find ways to create higher density areas, and that is one way.”

He doubts, however, that the higher buildings would be economically feasible for most developers. As the height increases, so does the cost of meeting the city’s fire-fighting and accessibility requirements.