In its zeal to denounce the city’s plan for downtown Kelowna, a high-profile group of critics has overlooked one thing.
The group’s own plan looks very much like the city’s plan.
Highrise on the old police site? Check.
New performing arts centre, eventual replacement of Memorial Arena, a bustling and active area with a diversity of uses?
Check, check, check.
The similarities between the two essentially non-competing visions are so numerous, it makes you wonder what’s the real motivation for the newly formed Kelowna Legacy Group.
A clue is what the group focused on when it held its inaugural press conference last week on the ground floor of the Innovation Centre. Right out the window was the old RCMP detachment, now stripped bare and readied for development.
The city’s plan, which dates back years, has been to invite developers to submit proposals for a highrise. The deadline for submissions was Sept. 30. City planners are now reviewing the ideas and will eventually bring forward a recommendation for council’s consideration.
If you were a developer of another highrise downtown, either already under construction or well along in the planning stages, you would definitely not welcome the potential competition of another tower on the old police site. Particularly if, as seems likely, the builders of that project stand to benefit from a deal with the city that substantially reduced their land acquisition costs.
The public relations and marketing professional who alerted the media to the Kelowna Legacy Group’s press conference was the same person who has been handling promotions for the Brooklyn, a 25-storey highrise now under construction. Mission Group, the Kelowna firm behind that project, also has plans to build more highrises that front Bernard Avenue.
At the group’s press conference, Kelowna Legacy frontman Philip Whealey, who moved to Kelowna last year, called for the city to delay moving forward with any rebuilding of the old police site by at least a year. That would give time, he said, for more public consultation on how the area around City Hall might eventually be redeveloped.
Then the group showed a rather simplistically animated video of a vision for the area. All of Memorial Arena was replaced by something vaguely called a “mixed use” development. A performing arts centre was shown as being built on the parking lot next to City Hall, rather than as an on-site replacement for the existing Kelowna Community Theatre. And the KCT itself would be replaced by a “community centre,” again ill-defined.
As for the old police site, Kelowna Legacy agrees with the city that the best development is a highrise, just not too high.
Kelowna Legacy’s plans show a 12-storey building. The view of Okanagan Lake from its lower floors would be effectively blocked by the multi-storey arts centre and community centre, a serious design deficiency that would probably make the project economically unfeasible.
The Kelowna Legacy Group includes several former chamber of commerce presidents, including Tom Dyas, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Mayor Colin Basran in last year’s civic election. Since then, the city has managed to seriously upset many in the business community with a raft of of unpopular measures.
There’s a new infrastructure tax, never even whispered about before the election but swiftly introduced once the votes were cast. Municipal taxes have risen by more than 20% since Basran became mayor in 2014. There’s an obvious rise in social disorder, with homelessness and open drug use never more prevalent in downtown Kelowna, and it is not unreasonable for people to direct some of their ire at city hall.
While the city talks endlessly about promoting housing affordability, it recently increased fees on builders of new homes by a whopping $7,000 per unit.
And Basran’s at-times imperious manner — as when he infamously said “the time for complaining is over” in response to critics concerned about an addict housing complex in Rutland, before having to beg Interior Health to change the building’s operating model after incensed Rutlanders nearly burned down City Hall — does not endear him to his critics.
More than anything, I think, people are dismayed at what seems to be the complete lack of actual, spirited debate among city councillors on almost every issue. No other collection of nine people could less represent the diversity of views that exist in Kelowna. Every staff initiative is said by this left-leaning council to be fantastic, commendable, superb — even a bizarre new downtown parking plan unveiled this week that specifically aims to limit parking in downtown Kelowna to try to force more people to take transit or ride a bike to work.
There are real and substantial public policy debates that just aren’t happening on council. As an emergent civic organization that aspires to be taken seriously, Kelowna Legacy Group could focus more on the present and leave the future for another day.
Ron Seymour is a Daily Courier reporter. Phone: 250-470-0750. Email: email@example.com.