During the past week there has been dialogue happening about the proposed Heritage Village on the waterfront in Whitehorse. Unfortunately, neither the initial column by Chris Dray, the response letter from someone in the community, nor Chris Dray’s response to that letter are published on the web right now. I can’t remember the name of the person who wrote into the paper, and I don’t have access to the newspapers right now to make reference to it. But I thought I would write off a few thoughts about all of it anyway.
For those not familiar with what’s happening, here’s a brief run-down of the plans: Chris Dray is the Executive Director of the Yukon Arts Centre and is playing a large role in the planning of a Heritage Village on the riverfront in downtown Whitehorse. The village is supposed to have a small theatre, rehearsal spaces, art galleries, cafes, and so forth. It aims to be a home for a lot of small arts organizations and to be a Granville Island (from Vancouver) or a refurbished warehouse district in so many other cities through North America. The main arguments for it (from what I understand) is that there is a need for it in the arts community, and that it would be good for downtown Whitehorse. Keeping people downtown, providing entertainment, having something nice by the water, etc. The arguments against it are mainly the cost of the project, questioning whether we do need something so vast in size, the consequences of taking away prime parking space, and an overall questioning of doing this project in such a public space at this time.
I’m on the fence about this whole thing, Torn because I have been a part of the arts scene in Whitehorse, but I’m also a realist at heart as well. I’ll agree with Chris Dray that there is a need for some new space that can be used for the arts, but I feel like their vision of the space is wrong. One of the criticisms in the letter to the editor was how the organizing committee wanted to improve the looks of the waterfront, but the way to do that is not to put up these long, tall buildings. A building like the old White Pass building anchoring Main St. is attractive because you see it and it feels like it belongs. But you go to either side of the building and for the most part, it’s wide open all the way down the shoreline. Blocking that all up isn’t going to feel right.
The other problem I have with the project is whether it’s sustainable for this community. The city just built the Canada Games Centre and there is already a lot of outrage about how little usage it gets (strange that we complain about how no one is using a space that we could and should all be using). The Games Centre is open to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid wanting to go for a swim or a grandmother wanting to walk around the track. That won’t be the case with the heritage village. You have to have some interest in the arts, and will have to make some commitment to get involved. It’s not going to be the kind of place where you can just pop in on a Saturday afternoon to do some pottery at your leisure. It’s catering to a small percentage of the population.
It’s even more restrictive than that when you go further into it and think about how many people can use the space in a productive manner (ie be in a theatre show or dance show), and then how many people can view those events. Public spaces have limitations on how many people can be in there at any one time. The Yukon Arts Centre can only hold 415 for a performance, the convention centre can hold 700 or so, etc. A show can’t run indefinitely due to the costs involved, so you end up with a series of performances for a limited time, like the Guild. The Guild probably has the same 1500 subscribers going to their shows. These same 1500 people are the ones who go to the other arts events, like the Arts Series at the Arts Centre, or the Nakai Theatre shows, etc. Do we really want to build these facilities for such a small percentage of people? It would be fine if it was something the tourists go see in the summer time, but they are here to shop and sight-see, not sit in a dark, indoor environment.
When I first heard about this project, I thought it would be happening closer to the Shipyards Park where there is already a parking lot, more space for the buildings, and a more scenic area of the river to look at, in my opinion. So that’s where I would put it, with the Kwanlin Dun building beside it. And beside that?
I think the entire stretch of riverfront should be greenspace. Nice walkways, groomed trails, landscaped. Public sculptures that blend into the shoreline and not stick out like a sore thumb. I see a public garden with all wild Yukon plants on display, not roses, but fireweed, crocuses, etc. Give the tourists a taste of the wilds and help familiarize themselves with the area before going out onto the trails. Put up the cafes and galleries along 1st ave on the same side as the McBride museum if you need to. Create a nice “L” shaped corridor for the tourists. Shop along Main St, relax on 1st Ave.
Use the millions of dollars to upgrade the Guild theatre if you must, or revamp the studio space for the dancers up there, but I there are better ways to use the waterfront than for a collection of buildings that will go unused by the majority.