When was the last time you visited Kelowna? Chances are it’s changed since then and the end is nowhere in sight. In fact, with luxury waterfront towers under construction, some of the country’s lowest vacancy rates, an aggressive play for tech, and a push towards urbanization, Kelowna could very well be one of the best places in Canada to invest. This week, City of Kelowna Urban Planner, Ross Soward, joins Adam & Matt to highlight some of the critical changes the city has undertaken and some of its future plans. See the Okanagan through different eyes and this vision has bike lanes, urban trails, breweries, and a vibrant walkable urban centre. Trust us, this ain’t your grandma’s Kelowna.
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Who is Ross Soward?
Ross is the Acting Manager, Long Range Policy Planning at the City of Kelowna. Ross grew up in Victoria. He attended school at the University of Victoria. He spent some time living and working in other parts of Canada, including Halifax. He moved to Kelowna 5 years ago, working in long range policy planning at the City of Kelowna. This includes long range planning, urban centre planning, and other housing related work.
Are you surprised at how quickly Kelowna is changing?
Yes, it is changing very quickly. The level of transformation over the last 5 years has been incredible. I have seen lots of projects in the downtown go from an idea to occupancy during that time. There has also been a lot of public investment in the terms of parks, trails, and bike lanes during that time. It is great to see this type of long-range planning happening so quickly. There is a pro-development attitude in Kelowna, which has been to its advantage. We have also had a lot of population growth over 2015 to 2020 and investment that the City has benefited from.
What excites you about the City of Kelowna currently?
The downtown is exploding. There are lots of new and exciting businesses and buildings that were not there 5 years ago. There are more people living downtown and taking advantage of independent shops, restaurants, and cafes. This is creating a great live, work, play environment for people living downtown. Over the next 5-15 years, this could start to also happen in other pockets of Kelowna, including the other town centres like Pandosy or Rutland or others.
What other cities to you look to for inspiration?
This is tough because it is hard to find a carbon copy of what characteristics Kelowna offers in other cities. You try to take pieces from other cities, like transportation, housing, parks and public spaces. If you look to the leaders in these areas, you can inject this work into your own plan. Currently, the USA is doing interesting work around housing and trying to be flexible with housing in single family neighbourhoods. Vancouver’s transportation network is a leader for Kelowna to look to as well – adding a grid to the downtown and incorporating cycling.
Given that Kelowna is a medium sized city, we sometimes look to other centres around Vancouver, like the Surrey’s, that have transformed from a bedroom community into its own centre.
How is the City dealing with affordability?
Certainly, over the last 5 years we have seen a substantial run up in housing prices in the Kelowna region. Kelowna has been put on the map as an attractive place to live, even more so than it was before. The City has been trying to encourage a healthy supply of rental housing, including purpose built rental. The City is working with the Province on more affordable rental options. The City is also trying to get more creative with the traditional single family neighbourhoods that are closer to the downtown core and looking at how we can encourage four-plexes and other middle income type housing that are a bit more affordable. This has included a pilot project where a portion of Kelowna was rezoned for four units on one lot to help to get this type of development built. A lot of municipalities in BC are facing affordability, so the City of Kelowna is trying to tackle these issues head on.
What is Kelowna expecting in terms of population growth in the future?
Right now, we are expecting 180,000 more people in Kelowna by 2030. Our population is currently around 130,000 people, so this would be significant growth. This will cause issues with affordability and it will push the City forward in our transformation from a big little city to a small big city.
Is Kelowna currently playing catch up with population growth or is the City building out currently with an eye on future growth?
The vision of more walkable, complete communities is at the center of what we are trying to do. The projections for population growth suggest we will need more rental housing and condos and we have already seen a ton of rental housing construction and rental buildings. In 2019, 1,500 units of purpose built, primary rental came online in the City. We need to monitor how these trends will continue and how the City can take steps to support these trends over the next 20 years. Certainly, we are not forcing something. The demand in the City is already happening and this is driving the changes.
The urban living and dynamic neighbourhoods is relatively new for Kelowna and it is very exciting. There are breweries popping up in the downtown and people that have not visited Kelowna in the last 5 years would be surprised at the changes that have been happening.
Does Kelowna leverage community amenity contributions with development?
No, not at this time. This is not something the City has had in its toolbox as of late. Before the 2008 Financial Crisis, there was some amenity contributions happening, but the program was shut down after that time to encourage development. Generally, there are some benefits and drawbacks to these types of programs, in that there are probably some developments that have taken place over the last 5 years that might not have. Also, you could argue that the City may have lost out a bit by not requiring these contributions.
The City has been building bike lanes and parks as of late, so there are still great community development happening.
Do you have an infrastructure project in Kelowna that you are excited about?
We have the Okanagan Rail Trail that is an exciting project. It is an old CN rail corridor that has been repurposed for an activity trail that goes between municipalities, starting in downtown Kelowna all the way to Lake Country, going by some great lakes for quite a long way. You can cycle, e-scooter to the airport from downtown Kelowna, which is great. It has got a lot of use in Kelowna and has parks and things that link off of it and it also goes to the UBC Kelowna Campus. It is very popular.
What are the biggest challenges facing Kelowna in the next 20, 30, 40 years?
We have an infrastructure challenge. Kelowna has somewhere around ½ a billion dollars of unfunded projects, and this deficit is probably not going to get any smaller over the coming years. The infrastructure also becomes more important as people become more urban and the population grows.
Climate change would also be one of them. Kelowna has issues with climate change as well. In 2017, we went from flooding at one point, right into wildfire season. We have a team that is looking at ways to combat this with green infrastructure and other methods. This will be a challenge for all cities. We need to create a low carbon future where neighbourhoods are walkable and inviting. There will also be other challenges like COVID-19 in the future that are yet to be known as well. It will be challenging.
Do you find that the City of Kelowna has a united vision for the future or is it fractured in different groups?
It may depend on who you ask. The sense is that people are happy with the direction things are going. The City Council was re-elected, suggesting their mandate was approved by the citizens. There will always be a push and pull as to what will be supported, but the ball generally gets pushed forward as long as you can show people the benefits of the growth and the development.
The downtown is so vibrant right now. It is great to point to the downtown and show people the benefits of living in a more desirable and accessible city. There are challenges, but the benefits are many and people generally support the new development in the City after they understand what it brings.
5 Wire (Kelowna edition):
Favourite neighbourhood: Downtown
Favourite bar or restaurant: BNA Brewing Co. or Waterfront Wines Restaurant
Book you would recommend everyone read: Imagining Uplands by Larry Mccann
Piece of advice you would give your 18-year-old self: Relax and enjoy where you are; don’t worry about getting everything right; enjoy the ride
Something you have purchased for under $1,000 that has positively changed your life: A foam roller for exercise
Find out more about the City of Kelowna.