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MCDONALD: Kelowna developer should get out of the way if it can't execute Central Green plan

January 12, 2018 - 2:41 PM

 


OPINION


Central Green was in the news this week, not because of mounting excitement over its continuing development, but dismay at how what was to be Kelowna’s grand gateway development has turned into just another condo project and not a particularly memorable one at that.

Councillors were expecting to see new plans for a concrete high-rise but were instead shown the latest development proposal by property owner Al Stober Construction for the signature Harvey Avenue site.

To their readily evident dismay, the developer revealed plans for a five-storey wood-frame rental apartment building that would blend in well with other recent condo developments in Kelowna. I damn it with faint praise.

Gone was the hoped-for high-rise, gone was the commercial component and at five storeys — not even the maximum six a wood-frame building is allowed — gone was any sense of grandeur.

Council didn’t hold back of with their criticism of Stober’s offering and what they also learned of the future for Central Green's last available development site — there would be no high-rise for that one either because of the cost of overcoming geotechnical limitations.

Coun. Ryan Donn told me he and his colleagues were “left stuttering” by the revelation, especially given previous assurances that a high-rise for the site would soon be forthcoming.

Donn and former students of the school have watched for years as the old Kelowna Secondary School site was first mothballed in the early 2000s, then sold to the city and torn down.

Any nostalgia for the old school was buried under the lofty vision put forth by the city for the prime downtown site of planned, mixed-used community anchored by high-rises incorporating LEED design principals and include social housing.

That vision was shot down by the downturn of 2008, and by 2014 — right before the market turned hot again in Kelowna — the city sold the property (along with a series of non-binding guidelines and some big expectations) to Stober for $6 million.

This is where it gets weird.

Most developers in Kelowna these days are screaming to increase density, install as many units as they possibly can through development variances.

Some will even push their demands through for a hearing before council, even when planning staff recommend against it, in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear.

Stober doesn’t want more than allowed, the company apparently doesn’t even want to develop what is allowed and what the public has already said it will tolerate.

This would indicate a serious lack of vision, a desire to make a quick buck, or a deeper insight than other high-rise developers as to where the market for condos might be in the three or four years it would take to bring a tower to market. Or maybe all three.

You would have to have been living under the Bennett Bridge, both old and new, not to know the city’s expectations for the Kelowna Secondary School site. Al Stober doesn’t live under the Bennett Bridge.

It has long been touted as a gateway project, the conversion of a nostalgic old site (that some wanted to preserve) into something that would say ‘big city’ when visitors first cross the bridge.

It can’t be ignorance so you would have to wonder why a top developer with a long history in Kelowna, who presumably wants to continue that relationship, would risk antagonizing the city councillors and staff who must approve and process its development applications.

I got short shrift when I called Al Stober Construction to ask but why would I expect anything else? If they are willing to continually bait and switch council about their plans for Central Green, they why would they worry about what the rest of the city thinks about it.

Given Kelowna’s hot real estate market, Stober has already made back its original investment and then some on the property.

We know they have the expertise, but if the company doesn’t have the energy or the vision to get it done, the city should look at buying the land back, loading it up with restrictive covenants and caveats so we get what we want, and then finding a developer who does.

— 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 jmcdonald@infonews.ca.


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