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A couple weeks ago, Penticton city council formally endorsed an initiative dubbed the "North Gateway Redevelopment and Investment Strategy" and announced it was "seeking a new vision for North Gateway."
Okay. Just one thing. What the heck is North Gateway?
Turns out it's a massive swath of land at Penticton's extreme northwest corner, where southbound traffic disperses into town from Highway 97 (thus the "North Gateway" nametag). It's bordered, approximately, by the Penticton River Channel, the Penticton Golf and Country Club, Power Street (home to that humungous Vees statue) and Churchill Avenue.
In its midst are crucial Penticton amenities like the Trade and Convention Center and the South Okanagan Events Centre, and just outside its north boundary is another gem -- Okanagan Lake Beach.
But it's also home to rundown businesses and old single-family homes, suffering infrastructure, and plenty of large, unattractive, empty lots. Foot traffic is minimal in its heart, and aside from a few spots, the area's roadways are used primarily to get somewhere else.
It almost certainly won't be that way for long. Though this whole North Gateway concept has been around for a couple decades, the City now wants to see big-time changes.
We had the opportunity to walk much of the area this week with Penticton's Community Services GM Anthony Haddad. And judging by our conversation, the North Gateway is likely on its way to becoming one of the most dynamic, forward-thinking neighbourhoods in the south Okanagan.
"Part of the North Gateway strategy is to look at what capacity there is or what the demand's going to be for new hotels and tourist accommodation," said Haddad as we set out. "We want to support the Convention Centre, the Events Centre, and all those assets the city has invested in heavily over the last ten to 15 years. So there are lots of opportunities coming up."
We asked about other areas of town, like the south end, but Haddad was quick to point out that the North Gateway is currently where it's at.
"We're seeing much higher development interest in the north. So there's a need to make sure we're as ready as possible, prior to larger projects coming into the city. We've invested heavily here."
We also asked if the City plans to impose its will on area landowners. And Haddad said there's no preconceived ideas.
"We want to work with the community and the landowners to see their vision. We do have some policies in place to support the infrastructure around the SOEC and the Convention Centre, but we want to make sure we have the community at the forefront."
But perhaps most critically, Haddad believes the North Gateway will experience the most evolution of any Penticton neighbourhood over the course of the next decade or two.
We soon arrived at the site -- 903 Vernon Avenue, adjacent to the Convention Centre -- where Kamloops-based Mundi Hotel will build a four- to six-storey, 100- to 110-unit hotel beginning in late 2021 or early 2022. It's an extremely important project for the City, which bought the land, used since for SOEC overflow parking, in 2015.
"It'll be a 3 1/2 to 4-star hotel," said Haddad. "They're in the process of confirming the brand. We'll work with them over the next few months as they put their plans together and finally add the convention hotel we've wanted for the last three or four years."
The City, said Haddad, made its parameters and timeline clear right from the start. And one of those parameters was a "direct pedestrian connection" between hotel and Convention Centre.
"One of our big gaps has been the lack of a connected hotel," he said. "And we'll also be looking at opportunities through road configurations, through land assembly options and through the design of this building to make sure its oriented as much as possible to the Convention Centre."
What, we asked, will a pedestrian connection mean to the little ballpark that currently lies between the Convention Centre and the future hotel..
"It's a dedicated park space," answered Haddad, "so we want to have a discussion with the community around how this public space is used in the future."
But the Convention Centre itself may also see some notable changes, not only to better facilitate that pedestrian connection, but also to give it better "presence" on Westminster.
"We could turn the face of the convention space toward Westminster, particularly as we’re going to see bigger development happening on the north side of the street," said Haddad.
That "bigger development" will involve the removal of the elderly El Rancho Motel and Enterprise Rent-a-Car businesses, both owned by the same entity.
"El Rancho came to council last year with a housing proposal," said Haddad. "But council was looking for more of a tourist designation. So we're working with the developer right now. We're looking for a mix of housing, commercial, and tourist opportunities."
As for the northwest corner of that soon key Power Street and Westminster intersection, realtor Dan Jones says there's been "great action" on a big parcel that hit the market in late 2020.
The parcel includes the Villa Rosa restaurant, five city lots and two rental homes and is priced at $3.15 million, and Jones gave us the distinct impression it’ll move imminently. "We're working with the city to determine what will work best in there," he said.
Haddad indicated the City wants to see "a high quality residential and mixed use development" on the land, with preference given to a small high-rise over townhomes.
As we walked west on Westminster, we couldn’t help but notice the lousy condition of the sidewalk -- tripping hazards, cracks, tree root upheavals. And, in the middle of the 900 block on the south side, it unceremoniously ends.
"You can see the lack of infrastructure that exists here," said Haddad, "These are the things where we'll work with property owners in the design process."
Connecting street configurations are just as problematic. Burnaby Avenue, for example, intersects Westminster at such a severe angle (at the Husky gas station) that pedestrians must walk a half-minute or so just to get to the other side. And drivers must poke the noses of their vehicles onto Westminster just to gauge oncoming traffic.
The risk is even greater where Vernon Avenue and Comox Street meet at Westminster. Here, there's potential for trouble in every direction.
Haddad assures us that densification will bring changes.
"Westminster has a wide right of way along this section and it will be a big transportation focus for us," he said. "Sidewalks, transit, public infrastructure, opportunities for alternative transportation, bike lanes -- those are things we're figuring out.
"Our goal is to have more people walking around, a higher density form of living, higher density forms of tourist accommodations, and liven up this area."
A few more minutes down the road is the Murray GM dealership. At one time, Murray vehicles filled lots of both sides of the street. Not so now.
"You'll see Murray has consolidated their vehicle sales onto the south side of Westminster," said Haddad, "and we now have a large parcel of land on the north that's empty. We have huge opportunities here."
Indeed, said Haddad, entire streets, like the section of Comox that bisects the two almost-vacant Murray lots and doesn't see much traffic, could be eliminated entirely to create an even larger tract of developable land.
"We're working with the property owners of dealerships like Murray," he added, "and I think you'll see those properties over time look to transition to higher-density forms of development."
In all, said Haddad as we looked toward a particularly low-use area surrounding the Roll N Stone Fun Centre at 1035 Westminster, "There are ten to 12 large parcels of land in this area that are undeveloped or underutilized."
All would seem to be fair targets for the North Gateway plan. "Things will happen when they need to happen," added Haddad.
We then chatted about the "Riverside," the luxury townhome community being built on the same spot where five years ago the decaying Highland Motel and Park Royal RV Park were demolished. Today, units in the Riverside are fetching nearly a million bucks. And the development is almost sold out.
"That's the first new housing project we've seen in this area for ten or 15 years," said Haddad with a smile. "If you remember the Wylie Street potholes and the Burnaby Avenue intersection, those are really good examples of how we can partner with a developer on funding public infrastructure.
"The boulevard was created with street trees and lighting and modernization of the old infrastructure. It helps make it a desirable place to live. That's why you’re seeing values being what they are."
That enthusiasm is shared by developers. Ewen Stewart, president of Riverside development team Azura Management, is a big believer in the area. And he's actively pursuing more projects in the North Gateway.
"I'm definitely interested in doing more there and I'm currently talking to other landowners," he said this week. "I'm ready to go tomorrow."
Directly next door at the aging Ogopogo Motel, realtor Chad Wozniak is hoping the heightened North Gateway focus will eventually produce similar results.
The Ogopogo hit the market in June of 2019 at a whopping $6 million. The price included plans for two city-approved 15-storey towers. Yet nearly two years later, after a reduction to $5.3 mil, it remains unsold.
"We've had a few attempts with offers," said Wozniak, "but for various reasons the buyers were not able to remove conditions or come to mutually agreeable terms with vendors."
But the Ogopogo looks to be the exception rather than the rule.
We've already referenced the Villa Rosa site, which is now on the verge of selling. Then just two weeks ago, realtor Pamela Hanson listed a string of three side-by-side homes directly across the street in the 700 block of Westminster.
All are painfully old and tiny, yet each is priced at $550,000 or greater. But already, reports Hanson, there's an accepted offer on the package deal.
"We had multiple offers within a few days," she said. "The City has said they'll look at increased density, up to four units per lot, and they’ve also allowed a variance that'll give a little extra room for something bigger if a person wanted to do a three-storey with commercial on the bottom."
But that's not the only triplet of interest. There's another at 1018, 1026 and 1034 Churchill.
One year ago almost to the day, an application was filed to rezone the land from Small Lot Residential to Medium Density Multiple Housing.
The three small homes have now been removed and construction will soon begin on "Arbour Landing," a stunning four-storey, 13-unit apartment building developed by Norman Goddard Architecture and involving a lot of cooperative work with the City.
Of course, along with density must come groceries. There isn't much in the North Gateway zone at present other than the popular Riverside Village, a modern, City-pleasing strip mall that includes veggie, meat, and bread shops.
But not to worry. According to Haddad, "The upcoming planning process will include a market demand analysis to make sure we plan for the appropriate commercial densities."
Anthony Haddad talks a lot these days about density, about increased investment, about momentum, and about confidence. And he knows all of it will have to come together in the North Gateway for the area to reach the City's grand vision.
"We're definitely seeing younger families, a younger demographic move into Penticton, and a lot of excitement starting to build with what's happening here," he said as we parted ways. "It's a really exciting place to be right now."
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