As the Kelowna housing market continues to sizzle, we continue our two part series on the future of the region with today’s guest: Kelowna’s Long Range Policy Planning Manager, James Moore. With unchartered demand for housing combined with rising house prices and a plummeting vacancy rate, how will Kelowna handle the pain points familiar to cities like Vancouver or Victoria (think: affordability, density and a quickly changing identity)? Which municipal hubs are set for redevelopment? What will density look like in years to come? And should you invest in a piece of the Okanagan? All this and more in our last installment on one of BC’s fastest growing regions.
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Please tell us about yourself.
I’m the Long Range Policy Planning Manager for the City of Kelowna and have worked for the city for about 10 years. I was born and raised in Kelowna but lived in Vancouver and other cities before returning to Kelowna. I’m enjoying being back in Kelowna; it’s a very interesting time in the city.
What has it been like seeing the change in Kelowna over the years?
I reflect on this quite a bit. Kelowna was a small town when my parents moved here. But now its identity is shifting from a young, small town that only attracted people in the summer to a more mature place that retains students and has a more robust and broad economy. Kelowna is getting people’s attention across Canada and internationally.
The Kelowna Annual Housing Report was recently released. What’s going on in Kelowna?
If you had asked me a year ago when the pandemic started what would happen in Kelowna, I would have expected a decline in housing activity, lower prices, increased rental vacancy and decreased population growth. But it’s been the exact opposite. Kelowna has benefited from people leaving larger centres and moving to smaller centres.
Kelowna has the balance of being small but having amenities and access to a larger centre. Our economy has been a bit more resilient than other places and that has led to our population growth increasing during a global pandemic.
Kelowna is no longer a resort town. It’s a maturing urban centre. Outside of the Lower Mainland and the island, it’s the most robust and vibrant city.
How do you come up with projections for the future and create planning goals?
We set projections with a grain of salt. Our overall approach has shifted so that we’re more flexible. We want to make sure we can shift relatively quickly. We’re trying not to be reliant on projections but be more goal oriented. We want to create the city that citizens want, and that can happen in many different ways, so we try to be more flexible with our approach.
Kelowna’s population is set to more than double in the next decade. Does that seem accurate?
At this point it seems like it’s growing even faster! We can get hung up and try to predict the numbers but we’ll be wrong. We don’t know what the exact number will be. But it’s more important we set the vision for what the city will be and how we want to accommodate those people. We can adjust as we go but we need a big picture vision and a clear path. What city do we want to be when those people get here?
Let’s talk about those long term goals and where Kelowna wants to be.
We want to shift to more sustainable transportation and shift land use to create better transit corridors and dense urban centres. We want to supply that missing middle ground housing.
10 years ago, the dominant need in Kelowna was single-family homes. That has changed greatly in the last few years to multi-family. Throughout the pandemic, ground-oriented homes led the way but the market was still strong for multi-family.
There’s a tendency to want to say that this trend will last long term – that everyone wants to abandon downtown and any kind of density to head to the suburbs. But I don’t think we’ll see that hold long term.
Is Kelowna building up and not out?
I don’t think that’s a perfect characterization because it misses the “missing middle.” For the first time in our long range planning history, we’re focusing on growing where we already have developed and not planning new suburban neighbourhoods. In some places, that’s up with building towers but in others it’s carriage homes, suites, townhomes, etc.
So there’s a lot that gets missed in the “up not out” analogy. We want to hit the missing middle and not let it get lost. We want to provide a full range of housing needs within our existing areas.
How are you approaching growth? Are there other cities you look to?
The planning world is always looking to other cities. There isn’t a clear blueprint we’ve taken from any specific city but we’ve been inspired by many cities across Canada. We mix that with ideas we get from our residents and development community in Kelowna.
We’re looking to embrace a corridor approach, which is inspired by other cities, to connect our core areas and provide diverse housing. We want to see how we can make those ideas work in Kelowna.
We’ve seen significant growing pains in Vancouver over the years. Have there been any growing pains in Kelowna?
We get to observe what happens in Vancouver from afar which provides inspiration, as well as cautionary tales. Kelowna isn’t in the same difficult position as Vancouver. Yes, we have tough debates, but not to the same level as Vancouver. That is probably just a matter of time for Kelowna.
As development begins to take place in established neighborhoods, requiring rezoning and public reviews, I imagine the future of housing in Kelowna will not be that dissimilar to where Vancouver is right now. But because we’re not there yet, we have the opportunity to try and avoid that.
Can you tell us about the five hubs the city is monitoring and what areas you’re excited about?
We have five urban centres at varying levels of maturity. We have our downtown and others that are more identifiable, and some that are just emerging that we won’t see fully formed for 20-40 years. But they do have potential and we’ll see their continued evolution. That’s where we’ll be focusing our investment on the public side.
One of the areas that is most interesting to me is our North End. It’s an industrial area and used to be the end of the rail line. But now breweries, wineries and other amenities have moved in. A lot of things are happening as the industrial uses start to shift. We do still have industrial production in the North End that is valuable and needs to be protected. But we also know that the nature of these industries is shifting. How we manage this growth and balance is important.
Kelowna seems to be on everyone’s radar. Broadly speaking, why do you think Kelowna is so popular?
I think there are a lot of intangibles that are at play and decisions that were made a long time ago. It’s hard to trace back what is happening to just 1-2 specific things.
But certainly the growth in the airport and education institutions have shifted the city’s image and ability to attract talent. Amenity-driven migration is a big factor for Kelowna. The city has the right mix of quality of life, urban amenities and employment opportunities. Kelowna is able to offer that right combination of things to people that make the city attractive.
It’s the jobs and the airport but it’s also wineries, skiing, restaurants and just access to opportunities that didn’t exist when I was growing up. When I grew up in Kelowna, no one stayed. We all left for Vancouver. But now people are staying because there are a lot of opportunities here. Kelowna is offering what people are looking for.
It’s nice to be a part of a city like this and know my child will have the opportunity to stay here.
People are staying in Kelowna and new people are coming. Vacancy rates are super low.
We talk a lot about the housing market but the rental market has also been outstanding. There’s really robust demand for rental housing in Kelowna.
What are the risks you see for Kelowna?
Probably the biggest risk to Kelowna’s long term success is housing affordability. That will affect Kelowna’s ability to attract people and ability for people to stay. We won’t be as diverse or vibrant if we can’t provide housing people can afford to live in. That’s a future we want to avoid.
Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet solution to housing affordability. Every solution we consider will have unintended consequences because it’s a complex issue. But I’m excited to be a part of this discussion and hope to help create a Kelowna people can continue to stay in and enjoy.