Whitehorse’s downtown needs some tough love

We’re woefully unprepared for an influx of new residents

Whitehorse, I love you. That’s why saying this is hard: You are looking a little run down, my friend. Yes, you have a fantastic new development in Whistle Bend. Yes, other neighbourhoods are seeing much needed infill. But your downtown core … well there’s some work to do there.

You can’t go more than a few blocks before hitting a fenced-in empty lot. The parking situation is a mess. And good luck trying to read a book in a coffee shop after 7 p.m. The last time I went to a show at the Old Firehall, there was nothing to do afterwards but go home. That can’t be great for our economic development.

Dare I say we need a boost of vision for our downtown core? Here are four ideas to get us started:

Build up, not just out

Last month developers unveiled plans to build Mah’s Point Two — an eight storey condo tower that would be the tallest building in the territory.

For some people, taller buildings go against our small-town Gold Rush vibe. There is lots of evidence however that building up, instead of out, reduces traffic, boosts local businesses, and better serves vulnerable populations like seniors. Let’s hope this is the start of a positive trend.

It’s not just residential units we need downtown. Too many government offices are finding their way to cheaper real estate at the expense of a dynamic downtown. Workers near Main Street dash out at lunch to pick something up at a local store, and might treat themselves to Friday lunch at a restaurant — all things that are harder to do from Burns Road.

Great cities attract young workers

Young single people already have a hard time finding affordable housing in the Yukon, and there are indications the problem might get worse. Last week, Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai forecast a mining boom in the near future. This means we can expect more people moving to the Yukon for jobs. If they arrived tomorrow, they’d find available housing is more rare than gold.

We are not the first to find ourselves with this problem. Like Whitehorse, the City of Saskatoon is also trying to increase the supply of new market rentals. It chose to encourage developers to build multi-unit rentals by offering property tax reductions and capital grants. It also has a program to encourage development on vacant lots and potentially contaminated sites with financial incentives.

Housing units are only part of the solution. Younger Canadians increasingly make decisions based on lifestyle. Equally important is the ability to get around town on foot or by bike, good entertainment options, and easy access to adventures. Our downtown has the potential to provide all of those.

Whitehorse should be a destination, not just a hub

Too often, our core is where we come to grocery shop for the week, before we hit Canadian Tire and leave. What if Whitehorse had an indoor public market downtown? It would provide a year-round (warm) gathering place to shop, socialize, and showcase local artists and merchants. Just look at the success of the Fireweed Market during the summer months. We could create that same family-friendly relaxed vibe year-round.

There is much to be celebrated that appeals to both locals and tourists — including new venues, like our wharf behind the totem pole, and the expanded MacBride Museum. The Yukon Arts Centre should continue to push shows to the Old Firehall where possible. The Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre has certainly filled a niche and could anchor a downtown entertainment scene.

If there is one wealth we can share, it’s our incredible roster of artists. But aside from the busts on Main Street, we don’t have much in the way of public art. I’d like to see our downtown visually transformed by our artists.

Great cities are inclusive and accessible

While we are spiffing up our downtown, I’d love to see our city become more accessible, especially for people with mobility issues. Did you know that some of our Main Street stores aren’t wheelchair accessible? Lots of our sidewalks (even pretty new ones) don’t have curb drops either. And the Millennium Trail could really benefit from more maintenance in the winter so that Yukoners of all abilities can enjoy it.

Our new Salvation Army is a great step towards opening our doors wider for those in need. Let’s keep moving in this direction as our city grows.

As I said, Whitehorse, I love you. I can’t think of a better place to raise my family. Many of us are here to get out of the city, for sure, but we do have to spend some time taking care of the common places that bring us together.

Shaunagh Stikeman is a lawyer, facilitator and community advocate who lives in Whitehorse.

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