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Special report: Big ideas, little action seen in long history of downtown development plans

Domed streets, a monorail, a mega-mall and the world’s tallest wood building some of the plans proposed for downtown over the past six decades.

A domed street, a monorail, an artificial canal and pond, a CN Tower-like structure, a huge mall filling four city blocks, the world's tallest wooden building and various performing arts centres are some of the plans proposed to revitalize Prince George’s downtown in the last 58 years.

On March 28, city council approved hiring consultants to create a new Civic Core Plan, based on the Smart Growth on the Ground plan adopted by city council in 2009, said Tiina Schaeffer, the city’s manager of infrastructure planning and engineering.

“A clear plan with an action plan and roadmap is needed to target into this area and guide land use and infrastructure decisions,” Schaeffer said. “So the goal of the Civic Core Plan is to develop a 10-year strategy, with a roadmap of prioritized land use planning and infrastructure investment considerations. The plan would develop options and review the feasibility of a multi-function use facility that may support various recreation and cultural space needs, and also works to gauge community support for implementation and infrastructure reinvestments.”

The Civic Core Plan is focused on the area of downtown around Canada Games Plaza and the Prince George Conference and Civic Centre. It will also look at the city’s need to replace the Rolling Mix Concrete Arena, Studio 2880 buildings and Prince George Playhouse, all of which are nearing their end of life, she said.

Schaefer said the report should be funded within the city’s existing operational budget, but said city staff will bring a more detailed report on the process and costs for creating the plan in the fall. The goal is for the consultation to begin in the fall and winter of this year, and the report be brought back to city council in 2023.

Mayor Lyn Hall said the planned demolition of the old Firehall No. 1 and Four Seasons Leisure Pool gives the city, “a tremendous amount of opportunity in that area of the city,”

Hall said he’s interested in seeing a performing arts centre downtown.

“I want to get to the next steps,” Hall said. “I think what’s important for the folks who are here (in council chambers) from the arts perspective, and all the arts, will be the engagement piece and engagement plan.”

Coun. Kyle Sampson said he’d like to see a single new facility meet the city’s arts needs, not just performing arts.

“A multi-use arts space is going to be needed… Let’s do it right the first time,” he said.

“Having been around this table a long time, we’ve been discussing a performing arts theatre since it was going to be the next facility we built after the art gallery. We finished that in 1999,” Coun. Murry Krause said. “So here we are. We’ll get there, I know we’ll get there. I am excited about this (and) I’m glad we’re moving forward.”


Prince George Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd Corrigall said downtown issues have been a major focus of the chamber, and strategic planning is critically important. Over the years, the city has produced “a series of very aspirational documents” with big plans for downtown.

“The question I have is, the downtown Civic Core Plan, how is going to be any different than what has already been done by the city on the downtown?” Corrigall said. “It’s nice to have aspirational documents… but it will down to execution, and that sits with council.”

Downtowns, regardless of the size of the community, should be a hub for business, arts, sports, culture and more, he said. A performing arts centre or district is one of the key amenities that current and prospective residents will look for, he said.

The city needs to be working proactively with developers and invest in the kind of civic facilities that help create that sense of downtown life, he said. Top on the chamber’s priorities for downtown is residential development.

“Downtown is that epicentre. You need residents in your downtown… people who patronize that area,” he said. “What we need to see is higher-density housing that is done at a cost that people looking to get into the market can attain.”


A 2009 Citizen review of previous downtown revitalization attempts identified 10 major plans or campaigns aimed at downtown revitalization dating as far back as 1964. Since 2009, the City of Prince George, provincial and federal governments, Northern Development Initiative Trust and private developers have poured millions of dollars into downtown developments, policing and bylaw enforcement, social housing and consultant reports.

Since the mid-1960s, every new city council or two has seen plans proposed to bring business and shoppers back into the city’s core.

The 1964 Miracle Centre plan called for Third Avenue to be covered by a dome from Victoria Street to George Street, with underground access and covered overhead passages linking the sides of the street. The report also called for a new parkade at Brunswick Street and Second Avenue, which was built.

The 1967 Centrum plan also called for Third Avenue to become a covered shopping mall. The ambitious plan called for the construction of a monorail connecting downtown to Parkwood Mall, a new CN Tower-like building and new, multi-story apartment and office buildings downtown.

In 1974, the Regional Development Commission delivered a plan urging city council to ensure 60 per cent of retail space in the greater Prince George area be located downtown. Pine Centre Mall opened that year, outside the downtown core. The city has continued to see new retail malls and big box stores open in the following decades but few in the downtown.

The Central Business District Study, finished in 1980, again called for major retail expansion to be focused downtown. The plan also called for new residential development and parks downtown.

Later that year, Toronto-based mall developer Cadillac Fairview Corp. proposed a $54 million mall engulfing four city blocks on Second and Fourth avenues and Dominion and Brunswick streets. Big-box retailers Hudson’s Bay and Woodwards were to be the anchor tenants for the new mall. But in 1981, a $45 million expansion of Parkwood Mall was proposed and Woodwards pulled out of the downtown mall. When opponents of the Cadillac Fairview proposal were elected to city council that year, the proposal died. The Parkwood Mall expansion also stalled and a major expansion of the mall on the outskirts of downtown wouldn’t happen for another 15 years.

In 1988, referendum voters rejected the $24 million Discovery Place plan to build a downtown theatre and convention complex designed by renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. Some of Erickson’s notable works include Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Robson Square in Vancouver and the Canadian Chancery in Washington, DC.

In 1989, the Mayor’s Task Force to Improve Downtown recommended bringing significant new buildings like a university, student housing and apartment/condo complexes downtown. UNBC was officially established on June 22, 1990 and in 1994 Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the university’s main campus – located on Cranbrook Hill. It would take until 2021, when Faction Projects opened its 205-unit student housing complex on Patricia Boulevard, for student housing to be built downtown.

The 1989 task force also called for police foot patrols downtown, establishing drop-in centres and offering incentives to developers – initiatives that would take decades to be implemented. In 2010, Prince George RCMP established the Downtown Enforcement Unit (now called the Downtown Safety Unit) and in 2021, the city opened the downtown Community Safety Hub to coordinate police, bylaw services, Northern Health, BC Housing and social service agencies downtown. In 2011, city council approved a 10-year tax property exemption for new developments downtown, with the option of receiving the money as an upfront payment provided by the Northern Development Initiative Trust. The St. Vincent de Paul Society Drop In Centre was established in the 1980s, the Fire Pit Cultural Drop In Centre opened in 1992, The Foundry youth drop-in centre opened in 2017, the Natsoolyis cultural centre opened in 2021.

In 1996, a committee of the Prince George Planning Council authored a report on downtown called A Time for Action. The report called for the creation of a public-private commission to oversee downtown developments, and made recommendations to address social and safety issues. However, city council rejected the idea of a public-private commission, and instead created its own action team. The action team recommended a revitalization of Third Avenue which area merchants rejected twice as too expensive, before it was finally completed seven years later.

In 2000, a 300-page report prepared for the Downtown Business Improvement Area and the city,outlined proposals to revitalize downtown. The plan called for the creation of a unique development corporation to purchase, amalgamate and rezone land for projects like an urban entertainment centre, a year-round public market, downtown residential area and big-box retailers.

In 2005, San Francisco developer Yves Ghiai signed a letter of intent with the City of Prince George to redevelop a section of downtown. The Metropolis project, as it was called, would have transformed Quebec Street into a pedestrian-only mall featuring a luxury hotel, arts centre, condos and updated retail buildings. None of it got built and in May 2009 the city finally terminated its relationship with Ghiai, after holding land for the developer for four years with nothing to show for it.

In 2009, former mayor Dan Rogers launched a new Mayor’s Task Force of Downtown Improvement. The Smart Growth on the Ground plan, presented after significant public consultation that year, called for the development of a canal and parkway connecting the Fraser River to an artificial pond downtown, located roughly where the new, $36.25 million aquatic centre is being built.


On Sept. 15, 2011, then-B.C. premier Christy Clark announced plans to build the UNBC Wood Innovation and Design Centre downtown, on the site of the former Prince George Hotel. In her announcement, Clark said the plan was for a 10-storey, mass timber construction building that would be “the highest freestanding wooden building in the world.” The City of Prince George purchased the land for the project at a cost of $2.5 million, and budgeted another $1 million to clear it. At the time, then-mayor Dan Rogers said he expected the record-setting development to be worth roughly $75 million. When construction finally began on WIDC in 2013, the project had been scaled down to a $25 million, six-storey building housing UNBC’s wood engineering program. The building isn’t the tallest wood building in B.C. (UBC’s Brock Commons student housing tower is 18-stories tall), let alone the world (that title is currently held by the 18-storey, 85.4 metre-tall Mjøstårnet building in Brumunddal, Norway, but even taller wood buildings are planned in the U.S., Vancouver and Japan).

In April 2012, local developer Rod McLeod announced plans to develop a $40 million, 4-star hotel and luxury condominium complex downtown on 10th Avenue. The proposal called for a 12-storey, 150-room hotel with 32 luxury condos. Construction was supposed to be complete by late 2013. But by October 2013 the goal had shifted to a $35 million hotel operated under the Delta. Construction stalled, leaving the site a bare concrete foundation with rusting rebar sticking out of it for most of 2014 and into 2015.

Construction finally resumed in July 2015 after Marriott International signed on to buy the land and built the Mariott Courtyard Hotel, which opened in 2018. Work only resumed after city council authorized using 64 per cent of the $5 million Revitalization Tax Exemption Early Benefit fund provided by the Northern Development Initiative Trust to offer the developers $3.2 million in cash and a 10-year property tax exemption. A Citizen investigation in 2016, showed that the NDIT staff and board were opposed to the fund being used to back a single project with a history of failure. Several new hotels have been built in the city over the past decade outside the downtown, funded entirely by private developers.

In December 2017, city council approved a deal with A &T Project Developments. Under the deal, A & T would build a 288-stall parkade on George Street and Sixth Avenue which would be owned and operated by the city. The parkade would serve as the foundation for four condominium buildings owned by A & T with a combined 153 one- and two-bedroom units.  At a groundbreaking ceremony in 2018, Mayor Lyn Hall called the development “the last piece of the puzzle,” and spoke about the benefits of having people living downtown.

The city’s contribution to the project was budgeted at $12.6 million, plus the 10-year tax exemption for the Park House condo buildings, but the final cost to taxpayers ballooned to $34.16 million – $22.46 million for the parkade, $597,138 to connect the parkade to the city's district energy system, and $11.1 million for water and sewer upgrades in the area, and other off-site works. The cost overruns weren’t disclosed to city council or the public until Dec. 7, 2020 when a report requested by Coun. Brian Skakun revealed the true cost of the project. Emails obtained by the Citizen through a Freedom of Information request showed that the city’s senior administrators received a detailed cost estimate from A & T in July 2018, projecting the cost of the parkade to be $19.9 million. The emails showed that Hall was forwarded an email from A & T by then-city manager Kathleen Soltis that warned about “very large overruns” for the project in July 2018, but Hall has denied having any other knowledge of the cost overruns until December 2020.

To date, only one of the four planned Park House condo buildings has been built, with a total of 37 units. One of the three remaining building sites was used to house the YMCA’s new, $3.6 million Park House Care and Early Learning Centre which opened in March, leaving the potential for two other condo developments at a future date.

In 2020, the city issued building permits for $70 million in new multi-family developments, largely located outside the downtown and funded by private developers without government subsidies. In 2021, the city issued $115 million worth of building permits for new multi-family developments. Of the 10 largest projects approved in 2021, only two – BC Housing’s public housing project on First Avenue and a $6.5 million multi-family development on Quebec Street -  are located downtown. The top 10 list was dominated by new apartment buildings and townhouse complexes on Foothills Boulevard, Recplace Drive, Hopkins Road and 17th Avenue.

Other public investments in the downtown include the city’s Downtown Renewable Energy System, which started operation in 2012, UNBC's Wood Innovation Research Lab which opened in 2018 and the new entrance to the Bob Harkins Branch of the Prince George Public Library, which opened in 2020. The privately-funded Hyatt Place hotel opened downtown in 2020.

A spokesperson for Downtown Prince George did respond to a request for comment as of Tuesday morning.

  • ­­With files from Gordon Hoekstra, Neil Godbout, Samantha Wright Allen, Frank Peebles, Christine Dalgleish and Hanna Petersen