Be careful what you read when it comes to development

Developing projects

Often, when you read about a new proposed development, you’re not reading something anyone other than the developer has reviewed. What you’re actually reading are the marketing materials produced by the developer, which the local news outlet has chosen to run (usually for free out of public interest in the story).

Take for example the recent stories about the future of the New Life Church site on Harvey Avenue (also home to the Woodfire Bakery). I’m not picking on this project, I could have selected just about any site in the city, but this one is the most recent at the time of writing, and I do love the Woodfire Bakery.

The developer released a sketch of the future of the site, which looks wonderful. It includes two residential towers, a new multi-purpose space for the New Life Church, lots of greenery and people happily walking around the towers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this proposal, except for one thing — the marketing materials.

The proof is an article written about the project. The final line in the story reads “The proposed redevelopment has yet to be presented to city planning staff.” Well that’s that then.

Once a developer goes to city planning staff, staff will give them plenty of feedback, from heights, massing, design, and more. Developers will then go back and make the changes and come up with something different, all in the hope city staff will then support the application.

But the reason developers release these plans in advance is to win over public support before any of this happens. The hope is they present something that no one could oppose, it looks wonderful and meets what people are looking for, all before they get a reality check from city staff in terms of what’s actually permissible, what the city vision is, and in this example, what the Ministry of Transportation will allow.

Again there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, people are interested in what a developer’s vision is for a site when it’s first sold. It’s natural to wonder.

Presenting these best-case, yet-to-be-reviewed plans, including quotes from the developers, should be viewed simply as marketing materials but they often masquerade as news because they appear as news stories, creating an appearance this is something that’s happening.

In reality, they are years away, and multiple rounds of feedback and revisions away, from even being viewed by city council, which ultimately would approve the project.

Often, comments online about a project are filled with people blaming city council for allowing a project or for approving a beautiful building but, in reality, city council has not even seen it. Unless you read that last sentence of the article, it would appear as if the project is approved and it’s going to go ahead exactly as proposed.

Next time you read about a proposed project in your neighbourhood, it’s important to check to see if city staff have reviewed it, if the proposal been formally submitted and if council voted on it before concluding it’s happening.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

New Kelowna road could have major impact on city's transportation future

Road to the future?

As inconsequential as construction of a new road may seem, the City of Kelowna is on track to make a decision that will undoubtably determine the future of land-use, transportation and future growth of the City.

At the tail-end of the last election, former Mayor Colin Basran announced the City of Kelowna secured $600,000 to complete design studies related to the construction of a future north-end connector, linking Clement Avenue to either Highway 33 or McCurdy Road.

While seemingly small, building a road by extending Clement Avenue, built adjacent to the Okanagan Rail Trail could have serious implications for future transportation needs and the built form of Kelowna’s downtown.

Any future second crossing in Kelowna would need to go from West Kelowna into Kelowna’s downtown, likely near the base of Knox Mountain, and then up to Clement Avenue and through the Rail Trail.

For it to exist, Clement must be extended north. However, its construction would result in Kelowna’s downtown being straddled on both ends by a highway, chocking off downtown from the rest of Kelowna. Further, it would separate Knox Mountain and what could, one-day, be a highly desirable trail from Knox Mountain, through the downtown waterfront and out to Lakeshore.

The potential for a new, Granville Island-style community at the old Tolko site would be gone, with a highway cutting through the north side of it. While the allure of a new road to ease congestion on the highway is undoubtedly strong, cities across North America have attempted this in the past and seen congestion worsen.

In recent years, many of those communities have removed those highways, only to see congestion decrease. There’s an urban planning reason for this, but that’s not the point of this column.

A road extending Clement Avenue would have to run parallel to the Rail Trail. The Rail Trail is a defining part of Kelowna and a true crown jewel. It’s hard to find infrastructure like that in any major city and is commonly used and enjoyed by residents and tourists alike.

With features like the brewery district in the North End, the Parkinson Recreation Centre, UBCO’s planned downtown campus, Kelowna’s airport and more connected to the Rail Trail, it’s likely to continue to be used by residents and tourists in the coming years.

It may not be the most direct route for people, but using a designated path with no cars and few lights is truly unique.

We must also recognize that 87% of traffic going over the existing W.R. Bennett Bridge originates, or ends, in Kelowna. That means 87% of all vehicles you see crossing the bridge either got into their vehicle in Kelowna or will get out of their vehicle in Kelowna.

Therefore, creating a second crossing with the intention of bypassing much of Kelowna to get people from Lake Country to West Kelowna or vice versa, doesn’t make much sense.

The easier solution to easing traffic along Harvey Avenue in Kelowna, beyond the obvious of having fewer people drive, is to reduce the number of intersections, e.g. the lights at the intersection of Harvey Avenue and Abbott Street.

Finally, a further consideration is that building the Clement Avenue extension will all but eliminate any chance of a future light rail line in Kelowna, potentially connecting the airport to downtown, with stops along the way.

Private studies have shown there is enough space adjacent to the Rail Trail to add a light rail line. In addition, because it was previously a rail line, the land is already graded for rail transit. That creates a far cheaper means of building the line.

A future city council may also wish to build stations along such a line using public private partnerships, whereby the city provides land to developers allowing them to build housing next to the stations in exchange for the developers covering the cost of the new stations.

While some have advocated for a light rail line alongside Highway 97, the coordination it would take with the provincial government, the necessity to remove lanes of traffic, and the need to have trains to stop at each intersection, would make it a bad plan. None of those would be considerations with a light rail line adjacent to the Rail Trail, with the exception of minimal work with the province on right-of-ways.

Building or not building the Clement Avenue extension has major implications for the future of Kelowna.

It’s not just a road — it may determine whether Kelowna will ever get a second crossing or a light rail line.

Disclosure: Adam Wilson was campaign manager for Kelowna mayoral candidate Tom Dyas in the civic election.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

New Kelowna council passes its first tests

Meeting expectations

Kelowna’s new city council faced two big tests in its first couple of meetings and it appears it was clearly listening to the concerns raised by residents during the election.

The first test came in the form of a new 19-storey rental tower located at 1333 Bertram Street. The tower includes 157 rental units and 130 parking spots, with 15% of the rental units being dedicated to affordable housing units — monitored by CMHC.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, residents said they wanted (council) to follow the Official Community Plan and planning documents and 19 storeys is seven storeys taller than prescribed by the OCP.

But wait, there’s a key detail here.

The maximum building height in the neighbourhood, as set out by the OCP, is 12 storeys, or 44 metres, tall. However, the city has a new density bonus bylaw that applies in core neighbourhoods, which allows for an additional three storeys or 12 metres in height.

That brings the allowable height, according to all city documents for this site, to 15 storeys or 56 metres. The 19 storey tower approved for the site was four storeys taller than that, however it was 56 metres in height.

That means the building, despite having more floors than allowable, was, in terms of height, exactly what was allowed under the OCP.

Furthermore, the project brought with it 15% affordable units, something people said the city should demand from developers seeking variances.

Valid concerns were raised regarding the parking discounts and the density bonusing program. Several members of council raised concerns with some of these city programs, including Counc. Ron Cannan, who ultimately voted against the project based on the number of variances (five) requested by the applicant.

Given the concerns raised about these programs, we will likely see this new council look to change some of these programs. But for the time being, those are the rules.

At the end of the day, this project fit within the height restrictions guided by city documents and included 15% affordable units. It was a perfect example of the type of project that many candidates said they would fight for.

The second major test for council was the housing agreement tied to the project slated for the former RCMP site, located at 350 Doyle Avenue.

The developer of the controversial project proposed said affordable units contained within the building would be studio apartments and available for $2,050 per month. Thiat was, of course, a ridiculous amount to be considered affordable.

To get to this number, the developer used median household income levels, meaning it included dual family incomes to come up with the number.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived in a studio apartments with my partner but it’s not common or enjoyable. I also did this while we were in university and lived in downtown Toronto. That’s not the living arrangement people in Kelowna are looking for.

I’ll also add that this was two years ago and we were paying $1,888 per month, less than what the developer now considers “affordable” for Kelowna.

When the housing agreement went to council, Mayor Tom Dyas refused to vote on the actual agreement and instead steered council towards discussing the affordability aspect in general.

Following a debate amongst all members of council and saying the proposal was absolutely unacceptable, council unanimously sent the developer a message to “do better.”

Those were two key tests in the new council’s post-election mandate and they did well. That won’t always be the case, it’s going to make mistakes — but it was a good start.

Disclosure: Adam Wilson was campaign manager for Kelowna mayoral candidate Tom Dyas in the civic election.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


What will new Kelowna city council's legacy be?

Creating a lasting legacy

With the 2022-2026 Kelowna mayor and city councillors sworn in, they will start go get to work on the list of issues that residents gave them over the last four months. Over the next four years this council will have plenty of opportunities to create a lasting legacy, but will they?

The legacy of a council is generally reliant on it creating some sort of long-lasting change to the city. It tends to be expensive public infrastructure projects. There’s no doubt former mayor Colin Basran hoped a new Parkinson Recreation Centre and a new Kelowna Community Theatre would be some of his lasting legacies if he was re-elected.

However, interestingly enough, Basran made a number of long-lasting changes to this city without those major infrastructure projects. That makes him unique when it comes to mayors.

Basran ushered in an era of progressive politics to our city, painting rainbow sidewalks, marching in the Pride parade, starting public appearances with land acknowledgements and announcing to the world Kelowna was an open, diverse and welcoming place. That is a lasting legacy that people will remember.

From an urban landscape point of view, Basran and his councils changed the urban makeup of Kelowna forever. They directed growth to towers and densification and away from sprawling development. While there will remain debate for a number of years as to whether the changes were too much or too fast, their legacy will remain.

Many of the towers approved under his leadership haven’t been built yet, but we will see them rise up in our skyline over the next four years.

So where does this new council go from there?

Its first big tests will be whether it continues to approve new towers beyond what the 2040 OCP imagined. Will we continue to see the proliferation of 30- and 40-storey towers, or will we see council dial back the density to the 12- to 15-storey towers current city documents imagine?

Then there’s the major infrastructure projects. New Mayor Tom Dyas has been passionate about the need for a new performing arts centre, but will he be able to bring the rest of council onside?

The cost of the proposed Parkinson Recreation Centre has ballooned to more than $160 million. Will this council be willing to set forth on the most expensive project in the city’s history?

Those decisions could create a legacy, but will come with significant costs. People remember when politicians deliver fancy new public infrastructure and it’s an opportunity to be remembered for doing something concrete. However, with costs skyrocketing and people’s cost of living increasing, will residents be willing to foot the bill in this current economic climate?

Council’s decisions to move forward or pause these projects will be remembered.

Finally, there’s the former Tolko mill site in the city’s North End. This is a 40-acre prime waterfront piece of land that will be redeveloped. Plans will likely be finalized under this council’s term and the possibilities for this land are endless. In fact, Basran named this project as one of the reasons he sought re-election. He felt it was so important, he wanted to stay on to see it through.

Opportunities like the Tolko lands only come up in a city’s history once. The importance of getting it right cannot be understated. The landowners have done a very good job of consulting with the community thus far, opening the space for all to see and promising to preserve much of the site’s history. But the question of how tall, building on it will be, what infrastructure will be included and what lands may be donated to the public remain to be seen.

Residents will have a keen interest in how this plays out, and should it not go the way the public wishes, they will blame this council.

The new council will make hundreds of decisions over the next four years, but whenits term is up, people will only remember a handful of them.

Even though the top issues in the previous election were crime, communication and traffic, those come down to a sense of feeling. They’re hard to measure and likely won’t be remembered in 20 years.

The future of the Parkinson Recreation Centre, the Kelowna Community Theatre, building heights and the Tolko lands are decisions that will last a generation. That’s what will be remembered.

Adam Wilson was campaign manager for Kelowna mayoral candidate Tom Dyas in the civic election.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Wilson on Water Street articles

About the Author

Adam Wilson is from Kelowna and has an educational background in urban planning, where he published his research on the politicization of cycling infrastructure in the Journal of Transportation Geography. 

Adam was named as one of Kelowna’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2017 for both his research into cycling infrastructure and a number of political interviews he had done with Macleans, the National Post and CBC News. 

He previously worked as an urban planner in Toronto where he focused on provincial legislation and municipal approval processes.

Most recently, Adam worked for Ontario’s Ministery of Municipal Affairs and Housing, where he held various positions, including as the minister’s executive director of policy and strategic planning, and the Minister’s director of communications. 

Adam now lives in Kelowna with his partner and works in the health care sector, while running his own consultancy that provides strategic advice on local municipal issues.

Email Adam at: [email protected]

His website is adamwilson.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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