Alistair Waters/Capital News Work, including driving more than 150 pilings for the 36-storey residential tower has started on the One Water Street project in downtown Kelowna. The soon-to-be completed 1151 Sunset Drive residential tower next door is seen at the rear photo. Both projects are part of a growing number of high rise buildings in the city.

Feature Friday: Is the sky the limit for downtown Kelowna construction?

City building up, not out, as high rise living becomes more popular

For years Kelowna has talked about building up, not out.

Today, that aim is being realized in the downtown core with several high-rise residential towers starting to rise from the earth, approved for construction, or in the planning phase.

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Buildings like the 22-storey 1151 Sunset Drive, which is nearing completion, and the 36- and 29-storey twin towers of One Water Street, pilings for which are currently being driven next door, are under construction. There is the 20-storey Ella tower at Lawrence Avenue and Ellis Street, which is also having pilings driven for it. Add to that the planned 14-storey Ellis Parc residential tower adjacent to Prospera Place, the approved 33-storey Westcorp hotel at the foot of Queensway and a proposal for three buildings, including a 20-storey tower, for the former Bargain Store site on Bernard Avenue, and for better or worse, the skyline of the city’s downtown core is changing forever.

And it’s not just downtown where the city is movin’ on up.

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In other areas, such as the Mission, where plans are proceeding for the huge mixed-use Aqua development featuring three buildings including a 19-storey tower, and in South Pandosy where the 14-storey Sopa Square is being completed, there are also signs of high rise living in the future.

Of course the city already has taller condo towers downtown, such as 27-storey Skye at Waterscapes—currently the city’s tallest building, the nearby 22-storey Discovery Point tower as well as the Dolphins and Lagoons buildings (17 storeys each). And then there is the cluster of Landmark commercial/business towers at the technology “campus” across Harvey Avenue from the Parkinson Recreation Centre.

According to city planner Ryan Smith, while single-family homes used to dominate the Kelowna landscape making up 70 per cent of residential properties, in recent years that number has dropped to about 40 per cent, with 60 per cent now multi-family buildings.

“I think the (housing) discussion is changing in the community,” said Smith, who acknowledged there is currently a lot of attention being paid to Kelowna, especially by developers of taller residential towers and people who want to live in them.

“There is a unique momentum in Kelowna’s growth right now,” he added. “It’s exciting to see.”

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The city has identified 10 different sites around the downtown alone where high rise buildings are either being built, planned or envisioned as a possibility in the future.

Smith said typically only a few of those types of large developments are built at any given time, but right now it appears Kelowna is a popular place to build multi-family residential buildings.

And, even with prices for housing climbing and a minuscule rental vacancy rate, the demand appears to be there from buyers.

When the two companies behind development of the One Water Street project broke ground on the first tower last month, they said 190 of the 216 units in the first tower had already been sold. That prompted North American Development Group and Kerkhoff Construction to push forward sales—and likely construction—of the second tower by at least six months.

The Ella tower, being built by local developer Mission Group, has already seen 80 per cent of its units sold, according to the developer, and the pilings just started to be driven a few weeks ago. That building will be the first residential high-rise built in the city’s main downtown core since the Executive House tower on Leon Avenue more than 30 years ago.

Mission Group CEO Jonathan Friesen said the aim of the Ella project is to help transform the downtown, along with its neighbouring businesses, into what he called a “dynamic destination” full of shops, restaurants and entertainment.

Kelowna’s Mayor Colin Basran said the focus on the downtown core reflects the desirability of Kelowna, a recognition of lifestyle choice and an economy that is back after taking a shot during the recession.

He noted for many years Kelowna grew out, not up, and that lower density meant huge taxpayer expense to service single-family neighbourhoods out in the suburbs. That is beginning to change.

But development here has its challenges.

The controversial decision to change the plan for the major Central Green mixed-use development by dropping the original plan for 12-storey towers along the Highway 97 frontage of the property in favour of even more five and six-storey buildings for monetary reasons did not sit well with city council.

Despite the fact the development will still meet the density targets set at the start of the project, council wanted to see more variety in building styles on the large, high-profile site.

But the developer said due to the high water table in the area, the cost of constructing the foundations for taller concrete buildings instead of lower wood frame ones would have made the financial viability unfeasible. The units at Central Green are slated to be rentals.

Building up is also controversial when it comes to public acceptance. Despite not showing up in great numbers when the project went before council for its final approval recently, many in the community have expressed concern about the planned height of the Westcorp hotel on the downtown waterfront.

At 33 storeys it will be the tallest building in the city—eight storeys taller than originally approved and nearly 20 metres taller than the 36-story tower at One Water Street (the ceiling heights will be taller inside the hotel). Westcorp’s tower, to contain the hotel and several floors of condominiums, will sit on a mammoth structure that will dwarf many surrounding buildings.

Former Kelowna councillor and Central Okanagan Regional District chairwoman Sharron Simpson said she felt the hotel is too tall and in the wrong spot. While not opposed to taller buildings in the downtown core, she said they should be pulled farther back from the lakeshore.

“The project is absolutely a blight—there is no context around it,” said Simpson, whose grandfather Stanley Simpson sold the city much of the land around the current city hall and Jim Stuart Park back in the 1940s and stipulated it must be used only for civic use. A covenant, since converted into a community trust, limits the use of those lands to public, non-commercial operations.

Simpson described the downtown core as Kelowna’s “village centre,” something that makes the city unique in her mind in terms of other similar sized B.C. cities. And she wants to keep it that way.

While she argues the new hotel development will spoil that, proponents of the hotel say it will work as a catalyst for development, bookending the downtown with the Grand Okanagan Resort and the other high rises in the North End.

But Simpson fears a wall of tall buildings could eventually be built, spoiling the view of arguably Kelowna’s greatest asset: Okanagan Lake.

And it’s not just public sentiment and opposition to tall buildings downtown that could temper the growing desire for high-rise living in the city.

The province’s new speculation tax could play a part as well because a sizable proportion of condominiums built in Kelowna are often sold to out-of-city and out-of-province buyers. With the B.C. government planning to sharply increase the amount of tax owners who hail from elsewhere would have to pay, the demand for condos here could decrease.

Westcorp has already said if the speculation tax goes ahead, it could delay, or derail, its hotel project.

And that worries the city.

“What we don’t want to see is any half-finished buildings,” said Smith.

The tax could also result in a flood of sales of existing condos here and, according to the city, damage not only its housing market but local industries such as construction and tourism and paint the city as not so welcoming for those planning to invest here. City officials are lobbying to have the tax, which affects only Kelowna and West Kelowna in the B.C. Interior, scrapped.

An example of what can happen lies beneath the new 1151 Sunset tower. A high-rise project originally known as Lakaya was planned for the property prior to the recession but only got as far as the foundations. The project was abandoned and the lot sat vacant for years, becoming an eyesore. It was eventually bought a few years ago and the new building rose from the unfinished foundations.

Similarly, the Conservatory residential project in Glenmore, once touted as going to be the city’s tallest building, ran into a string a financial difficulties, multiple owners and sat as a large hole in the ground for years before it was completed as a much smaller development.

So while plans are proceeding downtown on a plethora of proposed high rises, a sense of caution thas emerged that was not there even a few months ago.

Depending on outside forces, it remains to be seen if the sky is indeed the limit.

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