Riverfront rejuvenation to benefit arts and business

Imagine spending a lazy Sunday morning on the waterfront. You sit on the wharf sipping coffee then browse through a shop loaded with local crafts,…

Imagine spending a lazy Sunday morning on the waterfront.

You sit on the wharf sipping coffee then browse through a shop loaded with local crafts, while artists paint and children rehearse for a dance recital in the nearby studio.

It’s coming.

Ottawa, the territory and the city are working together to make the Yukon Arts and Heritage Village a reality by 2007, pending funding approval.

The $22-million proposed project will mix art space — a dance studio, a theatre, a recital hall, an expanded MacBride Museum and artist studios — with business space for local retailers, and park space with trees and trails beside the water.

It will sit on a thin rectangular area between First Avenue and the Yukon River, spanning from Elliot Street to Wood Street.

And the latest draft of its action plan, dubbed The Yukon Arts and Heritage Development Plan, was unveiled at a public open house Thursday at the Gold Rush Inn.

About 150 people came out to see the diagrams and models and give their input on the development.

“Our goal at this stage was to set up the framework so that people can see the general character and feel and relationship of the spaces,” said Stephen Cohlmeyer, an urban planner with the award-winning Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Cohlmeyer Architects Ltd.

Cohlmeyer Architects and Algis Consulting, based in Powell River, Manitoba, teamed up to draft the detailed 94-page document written in consultation with a dozen local arts organizations.

Artspace North paired with The Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce to commission the document.

The plan proposes four new buildings be constructed where the old warehouses were, but there will be more light and transparency in the design, said Cohlmeyer.

“There’ll be a sense of openness, you can see through things, you can see through windows — and that’s a big difference from the big opaque warehouses that were there before.”

Light was a major concern in Cohlmeyer’s design.

“One of the realities in the Far North is that you’ve got dark for the coldest part of the year and it’s not just a question of lighting streets for safety. Light can be a marvelous celebrational element as well, and what better place to do that than in the North.

“So at the ends of the downtown streets they’ll be a magical sparkle inviting people to come and see what it is.”

And there will be many different ways for people to interact with the space.

“If you look through the model you can almost imagine yourself going through the space 80 or 90 or 100 different ways and I think that’s very important in the urban environment,” added Cohlmeyer.

The plan’s second phase calls for renovations on the White Pass depot and the Fire Hall.

Until the 1950s, the riverfront was the city’s hub for socializing with daily train and steamboat traffic, but with changes in transport technology it’s been underused and disconnected from the rest of downtown.

Change takes time, said Cohlmeyer who has been planning co-ordinator on the Winnipeg Forks for the past dozen years.

It’s about healing abandoned land, he added.

After years of concerted renewal efforts, the Forks has become a huge tourist attraction in Winnipeg.

Cohlmeyer predicts the same thing happening in Whitehorse.

But, some worry if the Whitehorse population can support more development in the long-term.

“You build this and people will come,” said Yukon Arts Centre spokesperson Patrick Matheson.

It’s not only for tourists; the project will be a boon for locals as well.

“People will make it part of their everyday life. They’ll think nothing of going down to the waterfront to do some shopping or get a coffee,” added Matheson.

“The whole space will have multiple hearts beating hopefully in sync with each other that we can all benefit from.”

“To me, it’s probably the most exciting thing that has happened in Whitehorse,” said Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a complete rejuvenation of the city.”

About 900 square metres, or 20 per cent of the area, will be for business to set up shop, said Karp who has already heard interest from many local businesses.

“This is going to add to everything, to tourism, to business, it’s going to counter the big box stores and bring people downtown.”

The diverse project is a win-win situation, said Al Baronas, president of Algis Consulting, who worked on the business plan for the proposal

“Take the dancers,” he said. “The moms bring their kids from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dance classes everyday. What do the moms do while their kids are dancing? They go for a coffee, they go looking around, they become a market.”

And, the development will raise Whitehorse’s profile nationally and internationally.

“If you have a waterfront people will come to see it,” added Baronas. “And, with all the arts elements, people who follow the arts will come to see it too.”

But will this boon for culture and tourism block people’s basic access to the water.

“I think everybody is in support of the development, but not at the expense of access to the water,” said Whitehorse centre MLA Todd Hardy Friday. “In the downtown core it’s essential we have a view of the waterfront, people don’t go downtown to look at buildings.”

Hardy describes the placement of the buildings as “a wall that blocks the waterfront.”

Visual access to the water was a concern Cohlmeyer took with him to the drafting table.

Diagrams show that the proposed buildings will be windowed or staggered allowing people on downtown streets to see the river.

Hardy is also concerned that building placement may act as a conduit for wind causing a wind tunnel along the water.

“All you have to do is walk along the water and you know how the wind patterns are,” said Hardy. “It’s quite easy to see how the wind will be funneled down through there and cause some problems.”

So far, compliments have far outweighed concerns on the project, said Cohlmeyer.

This year the city will press ahead with one facet of the project — the streetscaping along First Avenue, said city planner Zoe Morrison.

The city wants to have the streetscaping in place before the 2007 Canada Games bring people from all over the country to Whitehorse.

It’s unknown how much that phase will cost until a more detailed plan is worked out.

The Arts and Heritage Village Development Plan suggests building development could begin this year, or hold off until 2007.

“We’ll wait to find out where the funding commitments are before we take the next steps,” said Cohlmeyer.

One funding strategy suggests the territory kick in $16.9 million toward the buildings — $2 million in 2006, $7 or $8 million in 2007 and the rest in 2008.

And a total $5.3 million from the city and the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund — $2.3 million for building wharves and $3 for landscaping and public space development around the village.

The plan also recommends an initial $250,000 infusion for staffing, planning and other start up costs.

After three-years the project should be self-sufficient, said Baronas.

He’s crunched the numbers and says the only part of the development that cannot break even is the theatre.

“Traditionally, theatres are always struggling,” he said.

The report recommends a $150,000 yearly subsidy for the theatre.

Yukon government officials have the plan in hand and will be looking it over in the next few weeks.

Copies of the document are available from the city’s planning department.