A 'ground-breaking' 1996 plan paved the path for downtown Kelowna’s dramatic growth | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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A 'ground-breaking' 1996 plan paved the path for downtown Kelowna’s dramatic growth

Downtown Kelowna is the third fastest growing downtown in Canada.

The City of Kelowna grew by 17,186 people between 2016 and the 2021 census, many of them moving into the downtown core.

That’s more than the entire population of Lake Country or Coldstream.

That growth has been managed fairly smoothly thanks to the foresight of a city council led by Mayor Jim Stuart in the 1990s and key planning staff, Ron Mattiussi, Kelowna’s former city manager, told iNFOnews.ca.

Mattiussi didn’t take over as the head of Kelowna’s planning department until 1996, after work on a new Official Community Plan was well underway, so he doesn’t take credit for what he calls a “ground-breaking” document.

This story actually starts in the 1980s where a downturn in the economy was reversed following the Expo 86 exposition in Vancouver that put B.C., and Kelowna, on the map.

“With Expo and everything else, the doors opened and the city was just flooded with growth,” Mattiussi said. “The city wasn’t ready. It had an old Official Community Plan. The planners were really kind of shooting from the hip because they really didn’t have a policy reference. So their recommendations were not based on community-engaged, approved-council policy.”

The city council of the day wanted to change that.

Led by Stuart, it included councillors like Andre Blanleil, Robert Hobson, Colin Day, Ben Lee and Shirley Staley.

“The vision was to take the pressure off suburban development and create densification in the core,” Mattiussi said. “But, we also knew, if you’re going to put people in denser neighbourhoods, you have to create nice places for them to be. That council was the first to actually put that in place as part of the Official Community Plan. I don’t think, at that point in time, they really believed it would necessarily happen, or certainly not happen as quickly as it ended up happening.”

READ MORE: Sun Peaks, Lake Country and Kelowna fastest growing communities in Thompson-Okanagan

Mattiussi gives a lot of credit for Kelowna’s dramatic growth over the years to Premier Gordon Campbell, who was in office from 2001 to 2011.

From Mattiussi’s perspective, Campbell was instrumental in bringing UBC to Kelowna in 2005, the Bennett bridge (it opened in 2008) and the major expansion of Kelowna General Hospital (construction of the Centennial Building started in 2008).

The 1996 Official Community Plan paved the way for dealing with the growth those initiatives triggered.

Mattiussi praised city planners like Larry Foster, Keith Funk and Signe Bagh for building on the foundation laid out in the 1996 plan.

“They really did a lot of the heavy lifting, the planning work, area structure plans, neighbourhood plans, design guidelines,” Mattiussi said. “At the time, a lot of people wondered what all the work was for. What it did, it got us through the next boom relatively easily and, I would argue, got us pretty much right to here. We’ve updated those policies, but a lot of work went into setting the foundation. What it did was actually allow us to deal with the growth. We weren’t creating policies on the fly. We weren’t trying to solve problems after we had them. We anticipated some of that so some of that growth, when it came - and it came pretty fast - was accommodated.”

Since the 1990s Kelowna has been one of the fastest, if not the fastest, growing city in the country. From 2016-2020, Greater Kelowna was the fastest growing Census Metropolitan Area in the country at 14%, although the city proper only grew by 13.5%.

READ MORE: Kelowna, Kamloops among three fastest-growing larger cities in Canada, new census data shows

The census also found that Kelowna’s downtown core had the third fastest growth rate in the country, behind Halifax and Montreal.

While Kelowna’s population grew by 13.5% during the census period, its downtown population grew by 23.8% (Halifax’s downtown grew by 26.1%).

Downtown Kamloops also grew faster than the rest of the city but the difference was not as extreme. Downtown Kamloops grew by 11.4% compared to 10% for the city as a whole, making it the ninth fastest growing downtown of 41 Census Metropolitan Areas in Canada.

While the population of Kelowna’s downtown core is growing rapidly – and will continue to do so if the number of highrises approved and proposed are built – it’s the lower rise and infill housing that are drawing families back to the area.

READ MORE: 2 highrise towers to be 'jewel-like centrepiece' of UBCO’s downtown Kelowna campus

“The real secret is how we densify the missing middle,” Mattiussi said. “The towers are towers but it’s what you do between the towers and the single-family homes. I think they’re doing a really good job there. What you see now is a much more aggressive stand. We talked about densification of the core as a way to relieve the need for suburban sprawl. They’ve taken it now and become much more intent on removing the sprawl. I think we provided more of the carrot to get everybody downtown. Now, the stick is coming a little more than in the past policies.”

He gives credit for that to people like current community planning manager Ryan Smith for things like encouraging four-plexes to be built on single-family lots.

Mattiussi lives in the downtown area and sees children’s toys in the front yards of the four-plexes.

“By giving people ground-oriented housing and the choice of housing, that helped bring families back,” he said. “I think they went back to those neighbourhoods because they could afford the housing but I think they’re staying because they’re actually making better use of the land that was there.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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