19 Mile info session gets heated
Public hearing is March 9
By Chris Woodall
The 19 Mile Creek affordable housing project information meeting, Feb. 28, was to be a chance to hear neighbourhood concerns on both sides of the issue, but participants got a little heated defending their sides of the debate.
About 25 members of the public, evenly divided on the issue, attended the presentation portion of the session held at Myrtle Philip Community Centre. Others in attendance included municipal staff, project developers, consultants and journalists from two local papers and radio.
A public hearing is set for Monday, March 9, at the Chateau Whistler, beginning at 7 p.m.
The 19 Mile Creek project is located on 7.5 acres of a 1960s gravel pit at the edge of Alpine Meadows by Highway 99, the Alpine Meadows Market convenience store and 19 Mile Creek. About a dozen houses on Alpine Way and Valley Drive nearest to the development would look down into it through a buffer of trees.
The project was originally 144 units, but has been scaled back to 84 units in eight three-storey building blocks: two apartment blocks next to Highway 99, comprised of 24 units total, and six townhouse blocks broken down to 44 three-bedroom units, 10 two-bedroom units and six one-bedroom units.
A pond further separates one set of townhouses from the residents along Alpine Way.
The developers want to set back and raise the height of the berm that protects against floods from the creek to meet 200-year flood requirements of the Ministry of Environment . The last major flood was in 1980, before the berm was built.
With re-construction of the berm would be work on the creek to encourage a fish habitat that essentially wiped out with the 1980 flood.
People against the development say it is too large a project for the area and will adversely affect the Alpine Meadows neighbourhood. They also say they are not against employee or affordable housing.
People in favour of the project say it is a much-needed affordable housing project in a location allowing potential residents to take advantage of existing bus service, proximity to the high school community centre, Meadow Park Sports Centre and the Valley Trail.
Some of the anti-project voices questioned that there was a crisis in employee or affordable housing, noting that Whistler/Blackcomb's employee housing is currently 85 per cent full and that the two local newspapers seemed to have a lot of accommodation want-ads.
"If there is accommodation out there, it's not quality housing," said municipal chief planner Mike Purcell.
Other information explained that the extra capacity at Whistler/Blackcomb is because it opened a new building in mid-December, 1997, after many employees had committed to leases signed elsewhere in October, November or the beginning of December.
As for the accommodation listings, there is evidence to suggest that those numbers represent accommodation that had been taken out of the general rental pool by house owners who had been flouting accommodation bylaws when renting by the week or weekend to vacationers.
As for density of the 19 Mile Creek project, it is less than the Millar’s Ridge affordable housing project in Bayshores, municipal staff said.
Other concerns voiced at the meeting said the project is too visible from the highway, although developers say a buffer of trees should act as a screen to make the project less visible.
"No amount of trees will hide this," said Alpine Meadows resident Paul Burrows, speaking against the project.
Part of the information available was a video produced by Kristen Robinson that explored what affordable housing means to Whistler. Several people didn’t want to see the video, preferring to discuss the 19 Mile Creek proposal specifically, but the video was shown.
"There's a direct relationship between happy employees and good service," Thelma Johnstone, executive director of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, says in the video. "One of the big components of that is good housing."
Amy Cassidy says she and her partner have five jobs to help pay for a $900 a month suite that also includes doing odd jobs as part of the tenancy agreement.
Whistler's students have already lost excellent teachers because affordable housing wasn't available, Whistler Secondary School Principal Rick Smith says in the video.
"One teacher was able to stay in Whistler with success in the Barnfield lottery," Smith says. "She's one fine educator, but we haven't always been so lucky."
The school lost three teachers who had been offered jobs at the school, but turned them down once they saw Whistler's housing situation, Smith says.
"At the end of this school year we're going to lose another teacher who can't afford to live here," the principal says.
Fran Charlebois was originally concerned about density and traffic when an affordable housing project went up across the street from her Whistler house.
"But traffic problems have been minimal, kids and dogs play in the street and I've got to know many of the residents on a personal level," Charlebois says. "It's been delightful."
The biggest hurdle for affordable housing is getting all the neighbourhoods to appreciate that small pockets of housing will enrich Whistler, Charlebois says.
"When you own, you take a closer look at what's going on in your community," says Christine Yanisiew of buying an affordable housing unit.
"The video supports what we've found in the municipality," town planner Purcell said after the video. "Affordable housing makes for a much healthier community and resort."
If the 19 Mile project goes ahead, developers hope to build the two apartment blocks and two of six townhouse blocks this year, completing the project in 1999.
The buildings will have shingle roofs and wood siding of a greenish-blue colour, developers say.
"For people who want to put roots down in the valley, this is an opportunity to do that and to ultimately contribute back to the community," says Bob Adams, one of seven principles in the project.
Adams owns The Grocery Store in the Village, employing 50-80 people.
"I'm acutely aware of the housing situation," Adams says. "We're losing a lot of employees who can't find housing.
"The people I'm concerned about are the ones who want to stay here, the ones rising up to middle and senior management," Adams says. "They are the backbone of my establishment."
Word of Whistler's housing crunch is getting international attention by would-be employees, Adams says.
"This year for the first time Whistler is not the flavour of the month in Australia," Adams says. "The word there is don't go to Whistler because you can't find affordable housing."
Pique Newsmagazine predicted that result a year ago ("The JAFA Syndrome," Feb. 7, 1997) with a feature examining the frustrations Australians in Whistler were having trying to nail down a place to stay.
"For the first time since 1988 we've had a really tough time getting staff," Adams says.