It all started with a letter.
When Sharron Simpson saw the City of Kelowna was selling the land at the former downtown RCMP site on Doyle Avenue, she was less than impressed.
“Is that the best the city can come up with?” Simpson wrote to Capital News on Aug. 28.
Simpson admits that her opinion may not be important when it comes to city-wide decisions, but her name is inextricably linked to the Simpson Covenant, also known at the city as the Sawmill Agreement, which does carry weight when it comes to land-use decisions on a portion of the city’s downtown lakefront land.
The covenant protects a parcel of that downtown land from being used for anything other than public use. Simpson’s family made a deal with the city nearly 75 years ago to ensure the land would never be used commercially in return for it being turned over to the city.
That deal was further upheld by a Canada Supreme Court ruling in 2008.
The news that the city was possibly selling the former RCMP site to a condo developer caught Simpson by surprise because it is located beside two parcels of land protected by the covenant — Memorial Arena and the city hall parking lot on Doyle Avenue.
While the city can legally sell the site, redevelopment in the area must be guided by the city’s Civic Precinct Plan, a long-term redevelopment plan for the downtown core that stretches from Clement Avenue to Queensway and from Water Street to Ellis Street.
Approved in 2016, the plan identifies key sites for mixed-use development, such as the former RCMP site and the Interior Health site and protects other sites for civic uses such as the Kelowna Community Theatre and the city hall parking lot. While the plan is intended to guide long-term redevelopment in the downtown core, Simpson said selling the RCMP site for a possible condominium project shows a lack of imagination.
“The city needs to see the covenant as an asset, not as a liability,” said Simpson.
“The city should have a vision for that whole area, and they apparently don’t have one. Selling it for condos would doom that whole area.”
On Oct. 3, a who’s who group of Okanagan business owners took a page from Simpson’s playbook and sent a letter to the City of Kelowna requesting it delay the sale of the old RCMP site.
Identifying themselves as the Legacy Group, the group requested the city to take a step-back and consider more proposals for the former RCMP site, namely a proposal they are championing.
“I was delighted that something came up to utilize the last remaining parcel of city-owned land,” said Simpson.
Simpson commended the group for their creative approach, adding that their ideas are a great way to get the conversation started about the possible ways to transform the downtown core — as long as they honour the legal rules of the covenant.
The Legacy Group proposal calls for the building of a state-of-the-art, multi-use development project on four parcels of land, including the RCMP site, the Kelowna theatre, the Memorial Arena and city hall parking lot.
The plan envisions creating a new-and-improved Kelowna theatre, a cultural centre and retail outlets.
While the proposal is still in its infancy, the Legacy Group said it put forward the plan now before city council makes any final decisions on the former RCMP detachment site.
“This one parcel should not be sold short of its ‘highest and best’ civic use,” said the Legacy Group spokesman Philip Whealy.
“We feel these properties, as a whole, represent an important legacy for the wider community.”
While P3 investors (public-private partnerships) would be needed to help pay for the project, similar to how Prospera Place and the Okanagan Innovation Centre were built, the Legacy Group said it hopes its proposal will encourage the city to reconsider its plans to sell the old RCMP site.
Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran thanked the Legacy Group for its input, but avoided fully endorsing the group’s proposal.
“The plan will help this area of downtown continue to grow into a destination to live, work, shop, learn and play,” wrote Basran in a statement.
“We want to maximize the potential for the site, as it is a prime, premiere piece of property in our downtown. I will note that the Kelowna Legacy Group is singularly focused on four properties while council must be mindful of the entire community, and the Civic Precinct Plan considers multiple sites and the needs of all our residents.”
For Simpson, while the creative ideas put forward by the Legacy Group is a welcome development from her perspective, particularly for the new community theatre, she urges others to speak up.
“Whether we in the community represent an arts group, a user group, or just ourselves, please contact the mayor and councillors and let them know your thoughts — before it’s too late,” Simpson said.
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