We took part in Imagine Kelowna, walked through an engaging choose-your-own-adventure version of all four growth scenarios for the OCP for 2020-2040, and had our say on the direction for the future plans of Kelowna. A great majority (72%) of us chose the more progressive Scenarios 3 and 4 whose focus is on future development occurring mostly in the urban core rather than in the suburbs, and last December the city endorsed growth Scenario 3 (in a rare 5-4 vote: Basran, Singh, Wooldridge, Hodge and Donn in support). Location-wise, that scenario has new growth at 81% urban, 19% suburban; and housing type-wise: 20% single-family detached and 280% multi-family dwellings.
Not so fast, the local development community said and they have laid out the case for a new scenario, without public input, which they call Scenario 2.5 (it resembles Scenario 2 very much, giving 33% of new growth to suburban areas). This industry intervention might be carrying as much weight with council as the democratically endorsed Scenario 3, and later today council will re-examine it. Infotel is reporting that many of the councillors who voted for 3 are reconsidering based on this intervention.
Putting aside the fact that this input should not bear equal weight with that of the public, city planners and the vision of Imagine Kelowna 1 (which was argued strongly by local engineer Robert Stupka here), I think we should look into this backlash by local developers and see if they have a point.
Most all positions and arguments that back up "Scenario 2.5" are fleshed out in the nine page letter from the Okanagan Chapter of the Urban Development Institute (which Stupka has also astutely refuted point-by-point), with other organizations like the Kelowna Chamber, Okanagan Home Builders Association, and the Canadian Home Builders Association of the Central Okanagan selecting a version of some of their arguments. While some of their positions are just plain wrong – ie, that Scenario 3 will focus mostly on expensive high-rises, when it strongly lays out the case for “missing-middle” units, those low rise, smaller complexes that blend into the neighbourhood vernacular (somehow I always think of Melrose Place apartments when I hear this term) as the main multi-family housing type for the urban core – I believe these to be their strongest points.
Arguments Behind the Development Community's "Scenario 2.5"
(1) We should work towards more “complete communities” by building more amenities and commercial out in the suburbs. The bonkers idea here being that we should reward those who built and invested in single family detached homes in the suburbs which increase auto-dependency and raise carbon emissions, with "convenient" strip malls that they will drive to. This will not turn those neighbourhoods into self-reliant zones, and they will still be completely dependent on the core with folks driving to work or the mall or somewhere on the 97 regularly. Strip malls and unchecked sprawl is what got us here and made Kelowna an unattractive option for families. This only adds to that model and endorses car dependence.
(2) Bedroom community drain: folks unable to find single detached suburban homes will go out to surrounding municipalities and no longer pay Kelowna taxes, yet use our services on the regular. This one is complex. And makes one contemplate and compare the benefits of an unresponsive and overly abstract system of amalgamation or regional governance vs the benefits of a strong responsive local council closer to the community.
All I can say is if Lake Country or West Kelowna want to continue building sprawling single family homes, their residents will not be terribly happy with the raised costs of infrastructure and falling community services and amenities. Kelowna however, is the big city and the leader in the region, and we don't really want to race to the bottom with a DCC (development cost charges) financing model as bedroom communities like West Kelowna uses – they don't really offset the costs of sprawl or set any standard for city-building. The costs of selling out to sprawl-focussed developer interests will be worn by taxpayers now and in the future. West Kelowna didn't even want taxes raised to build a city hall, and they are left dependent on foreign out of province real estate investment DCCs. Anecdotal discussions I've had with residents there has shown me that they are far from a bedroom community, and are solid West Kelownans who rarely cross the bridge and want their city to invest in their infrastructure. Strong communities are not just responsible planning, but the desired future.
Over in Lake Country, just today Kelowna Capital News reports that a councillor regrets council's decision to allow the clearcutting of trees in the largest development in district’s history (Lakestone on Tyndall Road area). In the same story they cite James Moore, a Kelowna long range policy planning manager stating Kelowna's departure from these old patterns: “if there’s one big push that would differentiate us from Lake Country, it would be our effort to shifting our growth pattern to areas we’ve already developed other than developing more of these far-flung hillsides”.
(3) The city is reneging on their promises to developers in the master planned communities. Since many parcels therein will no longer be designated residential, they claim the city is acting in bad faith. These are Wilden, Black Mountain, Kirschner Mountain, Thompson Flats and the Ponds. To me this is, at first glance, easily their strongest argument. If, as Charlie Hodge told Infotel, the developers are saying, "we’ve got something midstream and how do you expect us to stop in midstream?" they might have a point …if the city had already zoned the land for use.
The deal in these cases is that these areas have (or were about to have) approved Area Service Plans that outline the basic development plans for the new development area. Those plans designate certain parcels as residential, but until the land is actually rezoned, they do not guarantee the right to develop. Therein lies the risk that successful developers often describe as their ability to minimize, overcome or offset elsewhere. I guess the cold hard truth is: that’s your job guys.
(4) Affordability. Their argument here is that if we limit suburban single-detached new growth to 20%, then supply and demand dictates that less supply there will lead to higher prices, and housing will remain unaffordable there. That I suppose is fine and in line with trying to attract folks to live in the more sustainable urban core, but they argue, the goal of sustainable urban core living falls away because it too will become more expensive. Too expensive for developers to attain for all this wonderful infill housing. Interesting point, until you factor in the fact that land assembly costs for developers can go down significantly with the low DCCs associated with next to no infrastructure needing to be built, not to mention incentives for purpose built rentals, revitalization or green growth.
But mostly, all these arguments for affordability assume that more stock is the only way to combat rising house prices. We have learned, in BC especially, that is not the case. You can build and build and never see lower prices when speculators and wealthy out-of province investors are using our housing stock to either flip, use as secure investments, or hang their rogue hotel shingles on Airbnb. Certainly the empty homes/spec tax is one such attempt to cool things down, a further speculation tax that hits shadow-flipping could be another, and short term rental regulations yet another. The supply side seems to argue that it is more efficient to create more negative land use situations and justify them with smoke and mirrors supply and demand arguments that fly in the face of common sense and put the taxpayer or city's hurting infrastructure deficit on the hook. Also, and this is a big one, they omit that the current OCP which allows plenty of suburban growth has clearly done nothing to increase affordability.
The other thing they mean when talking affordability is that the land base should be economical for them. That'll afford them the ability to build passive (good, low-emission homes beyond Step 5) homes that aren’t that cheap (the low density wood framing for this is apparently $315/sf about $45 more per sf than minimum code requirements). But then it gets weird. They argue that once built, these homes should offset the emissions from all their owners' car-driving. They actually said this – like their Step 5 homes in the sprawl should give them a free pass to live a wasteful consumptive and car-based lifestyle. Also, the UDI is stoked that "over the next twenty years electric vehicles (or other cleaner alternative fuels), ride sharing, autonomous vehicles, etc., are anticipated to reduce the environmental impact of personal travel". Riiight, so take all the dividends from smartish environmental travel (no mention of public transit lol) and alternative energy and cancel it all out with your suburban McMansion lifestyle. #sustainabilitygoals.
So much of this reads like a defeated wail of an older, comfortable generation. They don't seem too keen for a relevant and sustainable Kelowna, nor are they terribly competitive (in their letters they seem petrified of big developers from the Lower Mainland, as if Kerkoff and the Mission Group don’t exist here?). I guess it's the years and years of building banal stock builder homes, with a design bar so low, it inspired renowned urbanist (or as the Globe & Mail put it "the continent's leading suburbologist") James Howard Kunstler to ask of Kelowna, "Why is the architecture so bad?". They just seem to want the status quo to remain. At least until they retire or die.
This is so evident in that most transparent of rhetorical strategies used by those desperate to cling to the status quo privilege they enjoy. They all deploy it in some form or another. It’s the we commend the direction and agree with you in spirit, but come on now, let’s not be irresponsible and charge ahead, let’s be reasonable line. "Let’s take a gradual approach", the UDI says. These radical changes (that apparently nobody saw coming despite the lack of zoning and re-election of a council and mayor that largely supports the urban densification principle) are "reason enough to be cautious and reflective before charging ahead" says the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce. This all translates to: let me keep my place in the existing way of doing things even if it's counterproductive to the future vision of Kelowna that I pretend to endorse, because otherwise I'll look like a selfish profit-oriented douche. A way of doing things which is destroying our ecosystem, as well as affordability and any hopes at an attraction-factor. I’d say staying on the track we’re on is what’s irresponsible and runs radically counter to all healthy sustainable city planning. Look where we're situated, it could be great – let's not mess this up beyond repair.
Martin Luther King called it the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. We stand with the many local residents' organizations (Okanagan Sustainable Leadership Council, Okanagan Mission Residents Association, KLO Neighbourhood Association, Kelowna South Central Association of Neighbourhoods, Kettle Valley Neighbourhood Association) and citizens that believe that now is not the time for that. Or as our favourite community philosophers, A Tribe Called Quest so tightly put it: observe the vibe and check out the scenario.
1 "Kelowna is a thriving city and an incredible place to call home. To flourish in the future, we need to be agile, resilient and unafraid to do things differently. The community has made it clear that as we grow, we need to look out for one another and protect the stunning environment that sustains us. Our vision for an inclusive, welcoming, prosperous and sustainable future calls upon us all to be ambitious to embrace the challenges ahead." from Imagine Kelowna, City of Kelowna