Opinion: Kelowna is booming, but transportation links to handle growth are forgotten

Feb 3 2022, 11:03 pm

Traditionally, when one thinks of urban areas in British Columbia, only two names come to mind: Vancouver and Victoria.

However, over the last couple of decades, a third region within the province has been rapidly growing. This is, of course, the booming city of Kelowna. Nestled within the scenic Okanagan Valley, Kelowna has steadily established itself as the urban heart of the Southern Interior.

When one visits Kelowna and the surrounding Okanagan Valley, this urban growth is of no mystery. Being one of the few locations in Canada that offers a reliably long and hot summer, coupled with rolling vineyards and pristine lakes, one is hard-pressed not to be won over by the splendour of the Okanagan.

Summer activity in downtown Kelowna. (Ian Ius/Daily Hive)

Summer activities in Kelowna on Okanagan Lake. (Ian Ius/Daily Hive)

In 2011, Kelowna had a population of 117,312 in the city proper and 147,739 in the metropolitan area. As of 2020, the population has expanded to 142,146 in the city proper and an impressive 222,748 people within the metro area.

This last figure has further grown to an estimated 229,401 people as of July 1, 2022.

As of 2020, the annual growth rate in Kelowna was the fourth-highest among metropolitan areas in Canada, at 1.9% annually. For comparison, the Canadian average was 1.1%, with Victoria at 1.3% and Vancouver at 1.1%. Kelowna is expected to continue growing above the national average for the foreseeable future.

As of late, this persistent growth can be easily observed as the City of Kelowna has embraced densifying the downtown core and other key areas in the metropolitan area. Over the last decade, Kelowna’s downtown skyline has undergone an immense transformation and will be completely transformed again over the next decade.

There are currently dozens of tower projects at various stages of construction, marketing, and proposal in the works. Kelowna’s new tallest tower, One Water Street, at 36 floors and 116.2 metres in height, was completed last year. This year will mark the completion of the city’s tallest office tower, Landmark 7, with 23 floors.

Urban growth in Kelowna, 2019. (Ian Ius/Daily Hive)

A rendering of Kelowna’s current tower projects under construction and proposed as of 2021. (Eric MacMillan/ericmacm.ca/@pancanadianskylines)

A render of Kelowna’s current tower projects, under construction and proposed. Landmark 7 in the foreground, downtown in the background. (Eric MacMillan/ericmacm.ca/@pancanadianskylines)

A render of Kelowna’s current tower projects, under construction and proposed viewed from Knox Mountain. (Eric MacMillan/ericmacm.ca/@pancanadianskylines)

In many ways, though, this is just the beginning. The University of British Columbia (UBC) currently has three towers proposed in downtown Kelowna, with the tallest being 35 floors and 125 metres in height.

A taller tower will begin construction this year on Leon Avenue, the second tower of another three-tower project, at 42 floors and 131 metres in height.

Numerous other tower projects that are lower in height but still notable will also be rising this year, such as the two-tower Bernard Block project, which consists of 33-storey residential tower and a 14-storey office tower.

ubc downtown kelowna 550 doyle avenue

Artistic rendering of the UBC campus in downtown Kelowna (right) and the adjacent Mission Group development (left). (HCMA/UBC)

Water Street by the Park 234-278 Leon Avenue 1620-1630 Water Street Kelowna

Artistic rendering of Water Street by the Park at 234-278 Leon Avenue and 1620-1630 Water Street in downtown Kelowna. (HDR Architecture/Orchard Park Properties)

The currently under construction Bernard Block towers in downtown Kelowna. (Mission Group)

Tower rises while traffic idles on Highway 97 in downtown Kelowna. (Ian Ius/Daily Hive)

While the City and developers are trying to catch up to the demand of the region’s rapid pace of growth, one major aspect seems to have been completely forgotten over the last several years: transportation infrastructure.

During the late 2000s and early 2010s, some overdue attention was given to the several under-built highways and public transit infrastructure plaguing the Greater Kelowna and Okanagan region.

Most notably, this included twinning Highway 97 north of Summerland, the entirely new twinned section of Highway 97 between Lake Country and Oyama, and the replacement of the ridiculously inadequate three-lane Okanagan Lake Bridge with the new five-lane William R. Bennett Bridge.

It seemed as if a decent pace of infrastructure investments had finally arrived at this often neglected region, yet that momentum came to a screeching halt.

The five-lane William R. Bennett Bridge, completed in 2008. (Ian Ius/Daily Have)

Currently, no major highway or transit projects are under construction in or around Kelowna.

Highway 97, the main artery that serves the entire Okanagan Valley and is the primary transportation corridor through Kelowna, is congested with countless traffic lights and roadside access points.

Not only does Kelowna lack a limited access backbone for its roadway network, a standard feature throughout the developed world for such regions, but it has the dubious honour of being the largest urban area in continental Canada that has no railroad infrastructure.

Regrettably, there is no clear objective plan for the Okanagan region addressing either of these issues. Only minor piecemeal projects have been announced, and even these are plagued with vague timelines for completion.

Perhaps, the largest possible project to move forward in the near future is the Boucherie Road and Westlake Road intersection upgrades along Highway 97. With the information currently available, the former is to be upgraded to a full interchange and the latter to a miniature interchange, save for any potential unannounced downgrades.

Planning for this project began nearly a decade ago in 2014, and as of today the only information available is that early engineering was to be completed in 2021 to inform a “future decision.” Not exactly the hallmarks of a priority project.

Decommissioned railroad corridor in Kelowna. (Google Maps)

Concept for Boucherie Road interchange. (BC Ministry of Transportation)

On the northern end of the Kelowna area, planning was undertaken to upgrade Highway 97 through Lake Country.

There were hints of a decision being made in 2021, but it is now 2022 and no new information has been released.

The planning for this project also came with vague timelines and potential “interim” solutions, which equates to building a project twice, adding unneeded additional costs. Again, this does not bode well for full completion being realized any time soon.

Similar studies, once again littered with vagaries and generous timelines, have been conducted to upgrade highway and public transit access to and from the UBC Okanagan campus and at Airport Way on Highway 97.

All of these projects are nebulous and disconnected from one another. To add insult to injury, the long-awaited plan for a free-flowing route between Spall Road and Highway 33 has been downgraded to an arterial road. Lack of funding from the provincial government until at least the 2030s has been a major factor in this downgrade.

One of the concepts proposed for Highway 97 through Lake Country, with “interim” phases. (BC Ministry of Transportation)

But the largest losses for Kelowna and the Okanagan have been the complete abandonment of pursuing a second crossing over Okanagan Lake and the Peachland upgrade of Highway 97.

Both of these imperative projects have been “deferred” two decades or more in the future. A true textbook example of “kicking the can down the road.”

At roughly 15 km long, the stretch of Highway 97 running through Peachland is the last remaining two-lane stretch of this corridor between Penticton and Armstrong north of Vernon. Naturally, one would expect this to be a priority project to complete the basic twinning of Highway 97 through the heart of the Okanagan.

After years of studies and consultations involving upgrading the existing corridor along the lakeshore or building a new bypass around the town of Peachland, the bold decision was made to defer the project for an undetermined future date.

Instead, only minor upgrades to intersections will be done in the meantime. This gave the Okanagan an obvious finger from the provincial government, and it was not a thumbs up.

Highway 97 through Peachland, the only highway linking the South Okanagan to Kelowna. (Google Maps)

Currently, only a single bridge links the Kelowna area together over Okanagan Lake.

In a rapidly growing urban area soon to surpass 250,000 residents, relying on a single link is risky at best and foolish at worst.

If anything, the highway and rail washouts of November 2021 clearly displayed the importance of redundancy in an emergency situation.

While there is an emergency detour currently available along the west side of Okanagan Lake, it is a winding two-lane road that adds 135 km to such a trip. Despite the clear necessity for a second crossing, once again after years of studies, this potential project will not see the light of day until the 2030s or 2040s at the earliest.

Kelowna and the Okanagan are booming and will continue to urbanize over the coming years. This will only continue to add pressure to the immediate need for a comprehensive and detailed highway and transit plan. Yet, over the last five years, all this region has received is indifference and delay from senior levels of government.

Several options considered for second Okanagan Lake crossing in Kelowna. (BC Ministry of Transportation)

A render of Kelowna’s current tower projects, under construction and proposed. (Eric MacMillan/ericmacm.ca/@pancanadianskylines)

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