Close-up: Constructing Westbank’s heart

Reporter Wade Paterson looks at development currently happening in West Kelowna and the district's plans to revitalize Westbank Centre.

It’s hard to talk about a vibrant Westbank Centre without including the word future in the same sentence.

Currently, the area is unattractive.

A provincial highway chops prime real estate into three sections, impeding pedestrian traffic and confusing motorists.

Businesses are scattered without cohesion; key buildings such as city hall aren’t rooted in the core.

But the Westbank Centre Revitalization Plan promises change: In 25 years time, Westbank Centre will be a thriving, unique, walkable, transit-oriented and highly attractive urban place.

A few investors are buying into that vision, literally and figuratively.

Around $100 million is behind two developments currently being constructed on Brown Road. Ground is set to be broken on a new medical services campus next summer. Council will consider another downtown commercial proposal in the coming weeks.

The transformation of Westbank Centre won’t be quick. And it won’t be seamless.

But it’s happening.

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One developer committed to the vision of a new West Kelowna core is Jamie Cooper.

Cooper is behind Gateway Urban Village—a $70 million project that will see 22 townhomes and over 190 apartments built on a five-acre parcel of land between Brown and Elliott Roads, a couple blocks north of Main Street.

He recently hosted an open house at one of the five townhomes already built in the first phase of the development.

While pointing to various features on the property, he depicts Gateway Urban Village as a livable, multi-generational development ideal for those who want to use their feet more often than their cars.

“We challenge you to find any area that has this amount of livability, that’s (walkable) and yet so open,” says Cooper.

The 1,800-square-foot brick townhome Cooper is standing in offers a view of Okanagan Lake and is built with what he describes as “materials that last.”

The developer lists a few of the amenities within walking distance of the new development: Capitol Theatre, Okanagan Regional Library, Westbank Museum.

Indeed, some services currently surround Gateway Urban Village. But perhaps the most appealing aspect is the new development’s proximity to what has yet to come.

“What you’re going to see over the course of the next couple years is this new city core, where the wrapping is pulled off and (it’s) built to the highest standards with lessons that have been learned from other communities.”

Cooper’s happy to get in on the ground floor of that transformation

“This is not proposed, this is happening…while others are talking, we’re doing.”

Next door to Cooper’s development is The Heritage: A 145-unit assisted living facility, currently in the construction phase.

Rick Reece, investor, developer and agent for Investicare Seniors Housing Corporation says The Heritage is unlike any facility of its kind in western Canada.

He defends the statement by listing amenities that set the seniors development apart.

The $37 million project will include a saltwater pool, gym, spa treatment area, library, theatre room, dining room, underground secure parking lot and several rooms with views of Okanagan Lake.

In addition to The Heritage, Investicare Seniors Housing Corporation is planning a “state-of-the-art medical services campus” next door. Construction on that project could begin as early as next summer.

“We’re looking at every medical service provider that could be centralized so that when people need to go and get something done medically, they don’t have to go to Kelowna…they can simply go to one place and get everything done at once,” says Reece.

He adds both projects align with the district’s plans for downtown revitalization.

“I think it fits in well with the redevelopment and brings some very high-paying, very stable jobs into the centre of Westbank, which contribute to the overall economy of the town centre. That’s obviously the goal that the mayor and council have…we’re happy to be part of that.”

The Heritage is being built on the site of the former Westbank packinghouse, which burned down in 2007. The property has belonged to the Reece family since the 1920s.

“My dad and uncle operated the packinghouse here until I bought the property from them in 2006.

“So we’ve been involved with the Westbank town centre for a long time.”

The Reece family members have seen a lot of downtown changes during that time and Rick has learned a few lessons along the way.

To have a successful development, you have to be committed for the long-term, he says.

“When you’re the first to make a significant investment, you have to be prepared to stay in and hope that other people will see the value that you’ve seen in it.”

As part of the agreement with the District of West Kelowna, Investicare Seniors Housing Corporation is responsible for several upgrades to Brown Road.

“We streetscape it, we light it, we put benches in, we put sidewalks in and we make it pedestrian-friendly,” says Reece.

“That’s what downtown Westbank needs. It needs that kind of significant infrastructure spending so that the downtown core becomes an attractive place.”

Now, Reece says, it’s up to the local government to do their part in rejuvenating an “old” and “tired” town centre.

“It can’t all be done by private sector money; it needs public sector money to come in and support it.”

Mayor Doug Findlater agrees incentives are one of several things the district must focus on in the revitalization process.

He and council adopted the Westbank Centre Revitalization Plan in August, 2011. The plan identifies several priorities the district needs to tackle to improve its core.

Another issue is zoning—council has yet to finish their plans to pre-zone a majority of the town centre. The mayor adds the community could use more public amenities downtown as well.

But the biggest challenge for West Kelowna is eliminating a couplet that has hindered the area from reaching its potential.

Last month Findlater spoke with Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Mary Polak at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference about eliminating the two one-way roads and creating a four-lane highway where Dobbin Road currently sits.

“They’ve now committed to engage in a preliminary kind of conversation in terms of a design and notional costs…so I think we made a little bit of headway,” says Findlater.

“We know it’s very costly, complex, it’s not in their long-term capital plan. We need to have the discussion and get an idea of the design, the cost and see what we can do.”

Although the district has a lot of work to do in several areas, some small steps have already been taken to improve Westbank Centre.

“It’s actually more vibrant than a lot of people think,” says Findlater.

Music in the Park successfully brought the community to Memorial Park throughout the summer. The library increased its space by 50 per cent. The museum recently celebrated a successful first year in its new downtown location. The kids water park provided entertainment for young people. Street beautification projects cleaned up the streets.

And more is in the works, says Findlater.

A health services contractor is investigating options for bringing a primary health care facility downtown. Long-term planning will soon take place about possibly bringing city hall to the town centre. A parking study is currently underway to determine what the needs will be as downtown grows. And bus rapid transit will be implemented in 2014.

“We have a long way to go in terms of completing everything we want to do with the Westbank town centre.

“But, if council’s vision comes to fruition, in 10 or 15 years it might look a bit like what you see in South Pandosy.”

wpaterson@kelownacapnews.com