Yellowknife City Council agreed to sign a memo Monday night that earmarks Tin Can Hill as the intended site for a future Aurora College polytechnic university campus.
The motion passed with six votes in favour of signing the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the college and the territorial government. Coun. Stacie Smith was the only one who opposed the decision, and Councillor Niels Konge was not present.
Tin Can Hill is a much-loved green space that runs alongside Yellowknife Bay, an arm of Great Slave Lake. Named for the rusted tin cans left by prospectors decades ago, the area is a haven for off-leash dog walkers, bikers and picnickers.
The suggestion it be turned into a campus, which council heard formally for the first time last week, has sparked division in the city — putting recreational users at odds with those in favour of the development.
A done deal?
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty told city hall the memo is an agreement to have staff work on the project's various legislative steps — such as giving the land to the territorial government and rezoning it.
She said there would be opportunities for people to have their say in the development, particularly during the rezoning phase, and that the location is not yet a "done deal."
But of the seven residents who spoke during the specially convened council meeting, most worried the memorandum of understanding suggests otherwise. Some of the concerns were about transparency, poor consultation, a rushed decision, a loss of green space and a missed opportunity to make good on climate change commitments.
What the people said
Con Road resident Amanda Sharma, who regularly walks Tin Can Hill trails that connect to her backyard, said building new structures for the university will consume large amounts of energy, and the best solution would be for the college to retrofit vacant buildings that already exist in the city's downtown core instead.
"The greenest building is one that's already built," she said, quoting former American Institute of Architects President Carl Elefante.
But Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, an academic who told city hall she's bringing $23 million in research dollars into the territory over the span of 10 years, said Yellowknife can't afford to put a campus in a downtown office tower where it can't expand.
Irlbacher-Fox, who along with Chamber of Commerce President Rob Warburton spoke in favour of the campus, said building the institution in a land-based location, next to a body of water, is an act of reconciliation that will benefit Indigenous students coming from N.W.T. communities.
Irlbacher-Fox also said it's "misleading" to frame Tin Can Hill as an accessible green space — because it doesn't have accessible trails or city transit connections.
Allan Gofenko, a 21-year resident of Yellowknife and CBC North employee, told city hall his petition against the university development garnered more than 680 signatures in seven days.
The N.W.T. government selected the location behind closed doors, he said, and he asked that other sites for the campus be presented to the public.
"This MOU plants the seed that Tin Can is all but a done deal," he said. "We all know the further we get towards subjecting Tin Can to this development, the harder and more costly it will be on all fronts to change direction."
What the politicians said
Coun. Julian Morse said he spoke with Education Minister R.J. Simpson on Friday and learned Yellowknife does not have as many suitable sites for a university campus as it may appear.
"There is not a better site, in this community, which is available for development right now," Morse said.
He also echoed Coun. Morgan's suggestion that a university campus may be the best way of preserving the Tin Can Hill green space — because in the future it may become the site of residential development instead.
"I don't agree with this perspective that the two cannot co-exist," he said.
Coun. Steve Payne, meanwhile, said a university on Tin Can Hill could be the "envy" of all three territories and he urged people to have faith in the decision-making process.
"Sometimes we don't understand the whole process that's going on behind closed doors," he said. "We have to put some faith that there [were] many professionals behind picking this location, and [professionals] who know a lot more about how to choose a university space than we do."
Coun. Smith said a polytechnic university would be great for Yellowknife, but that she would be "standing firm" with residents who oppose Tin Can Hill as its location.
"We keep missing these great opportunities to take our downtown and be creative," she said.
Aurora College's current Yellowknife campus shares a building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 54th Street with Northern United Place. It also has campuses in Inuvik and Fort Smith.
Mayor Alty, who supported the motion, said students deserve a space that is culturally relevant, in their home territory, with access to trails, that is better than what they've had for decades.
"I know one of the challenges for residents today is they want to be ten steps ahead. They want to see what the building will look like … they want to talk about the trails and see what they look like."
Alty said she also wants to know what the building and what trails will look like, and she looks forward to hashing out those details and talking to people about them further down the road.
If the project reaches the zoning bylaw stage, the city will have to hold a statutory public hearing that residents can participate in. That is not expected to take place until early 2023.