You can say what you want about the City of Kelowna’s planning department but being in bed with big developers isn’t one of them.
Nothing proves that more than Tuesday’s decision by Kelowna city council to ignore the recommendation by the planning department that it reject an application by Phil Milroy and Westcorp Development to substantially increase the size of the development proposed for the old Willow Inn site.
The project has a lengthy backstory but as of 2016, Westcorp had been approved to build a 26-storey hotel and commercial development on what is arguably one of Kelowna’s most prominent development sites, sitting where it is on the city’s water front on the edge of the cultural district.
But instead of proceeding, the company let its building permit lapse, returning last summer with a new proposal for a 33-storey building with a luxury residential condo component in a request for a development variance that far exceded the limitations of its C7 high-rise zoning.
How far beyond? Urban planning manager Terry Barton says the Westcorp building site at one acre coupled with density and floor area ratios means the new building is bumping up against the max, almost as big as it can legally be.
Opposition to the variance was partially based on the size of the building relative to the numerous two and three storey buildings around it, Barton says, but also on the absence of any other high-rises of a similar stature anywhere nearby and the unlikelihood of there being one any time soon.
During its pitch to council, Westcorp pointed to One Water as precedent, now one of Kelowna’s most advanced high-rise projects now driving piles on the former site of the Big Dirt Hill.
Developer Kerkhoff Construction asked for and received a variance allowing two towers, one 36-storeys, the other 29-storeys, a request this time that was supported by the planning department.
Barton says the rationale for recommending acceptance of the variance was easy to make; there’s already high-rise towers of a similar size in the area, the location at Clement and Ellis wasn’t as significant a site, and the physical area of it — it’s almost three times the size of the Westcorp site — meant it could have supported a significantly larger structure.
Professional municipal planners occupy a strange position in the world. Amongst other functions, they are hired to apply best practices and a community’s zoning bylaws to development applications.
Planners can put many hours into a large development application, working with the developer to take whatever vision they put forth trying make it conform to those bylaws, only to have it put forth to council and turned down flat.
Conversely, a developer who doesn’t like what they hear from planning staff can bypass them and put it in front of city council and dozens of armchair planners, many with vested interests.
If council sides with the developer, as happened Tuesday during the Westcorp public hearing, planning staff must abandon their professional opinions and work just as hard to support a plan they at one point didn’t agree with.
There are changes coming, including the empty home and foreign buyers tax and looming interest rate hikes that could soon take the wind out of the real estate market’s sales (pun intended) and directly affect the viability of the Westcorp project
Barton is far too professional and diplomatic to predict the project's future (I wish they would name the damned thing) but he’s willing to talk about what might have happened if the company had gone ahead with its hotel alone as planned.
“They would have been about halfway done at this point. There’s demand (for hotel rooms), it would have hit the market almost perfectly. There’s good construction pricing right now but that’s escalating. It would have been very good timing for the old project.”
In an ideal world, now the decision has been made, the real estate market will stay bouyant, the Westcorp hotel and condo project will proceed as planned and perhaps more importantly, finish as projected and not end up a vacant lot for another decade, or worse, a half-built hulk.
If it does, they might have to use their inside voices, but Kelowna’s planners can say I told you so.
— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at email@example.com.