A vision for a valley
In the beginning there was no plan. Then there was a plan but there was also opposition. Then there was a change of governments…
By Bob Barnett
When Whistler Mountain opened in the winter of 1965-66 it had an immediate impact on the priorities and travel patterns of Lower Mainland skiers. It meant the winter weekend exodus from Vancouver changed from a southward migration to Mount Baker or an eastward flow to Interior mountains, to a northward pattern. Lower Mainland skiers started building cabins in the new subdivisions which were springing up throughout the Whistler Valley, creations of the time-honoured B.C. tradition of land speculation. Whistler was, in fact, a microcosm of British Columbia hinterland development in the late ’60s and early ’70s: a rough road built into a wild land that had yet to be tamed where the people endured a boom-or-bust economy dependent on the land’s natural resources.
Most people were happy enough with this little universe, which largely consisted of private cabins, deep snow and fabulous skiing terrain, but a few people saw the potential for something much larger. They saw a need for order in the chaos of this weekend ski retreat. But some sort of Big Bang was needed to bring about that order.
Despite the fact Vancouver residents were buying lots and building Gothic arch cabins in Alpine Meadows, Emerald Estates, Whistler Cay, White Gold and Alta Vista, Whistler’s opportunities for growth were limited. The mountain had huge lineups on weekends but because there was no mid-week business to speak of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. couldn’t justify additional chairlifts. The valley was almost deserted in summers. A few people worked in the building trades but many left town for jobs where they could earn enough over the summer to come back and ski all winter.
By 1973 there was a sense that something had to be done to break the stalemate. Speculators and developers had bought up large chunks of land throughout the valley, expecting to build hotels and private resorts that would help make Whistler a destination resort, and make them lots of money. Three sites were discussed as centres for resort development: on private land at the south end of Green Lake, on private land at Creekside, and an area on the north side of Whistler Mountain which had been identified by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association years earlier as the site for an Olympic village.
But with no local government — the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District controlled zoning and development permits — the discussion was really being driven by developers and speculators. It was a situation that was intolerable to Bob Williams, Minister of Lands in British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government. It wasn’t just that the NDP was a socialist government; the speculation and unplanned development ran contrary to Williams’ instincts as a trained planner. So he created the Big Bang by placing a moratorium on commercial development in Whistler while studies were done.
In September of 1974 a study by James Gilmour of Municipal Affairs’ planning services department concluded that preparation of a community plan could not be postponed any longer. The report cited concerns about growth, the lack of a sewer, the open garbage dump and the capacity of the valley for development.
"Considerable planning discussion in the recent past has revolved around the question of a ‘single centred’ versus a ‘multi-centred’ community," Gilmour wrote. "This plan strongly recommends the ‘single centred’ concept over the ‘multi-centred’ one for a variety of reasons." The single centre provided a psychological focal point for the valley, a multiplier effect to support local businesses and it minimized car traffic in the valley.
Gilmour also selected a site for the proposed town centre: "… in the vicinity of the present garbage dump." The site was chosen because it was central, was adjacent both Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb — a mountain which Gilmour noted held potential for ski development — and, importantly, it was Crown land. "Which means greater control and avoidance of a potentially exploitative quasi-monopoly situation that could develop if a single centre is on private land."
The report had the support of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce and the Alta Lake Ratepayers Association, which were the only bodies that really spoke for Whistler at the time. But it didn’t sit well with some private land owners, most notably Norm Paterson. Paterson had developed the Alpine Meadows and Emerald Estates subdivisions and owned a large tract of land at the south end of Green Lake. In partnership with Winnipeg’s Imperial Ventures Ltd., Paterson had been negotiating with the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District to build a commercial development on his land which would provide a theatre, restaurants, shopping plaza, a motor inn, a lodge and condominiums. With the submission of Gilmour’s report Paterson’s plans were put on hold.
But more than just a physical plan to bring order to Whistler, Gilmour also suggested a local government with a strong planning department was needed to control development in the valley and, significantly, ensure the future destination resort met the province’s expectations.
"…normal forms of municipal organization may not be appropriate for a resort town such as Whistler, which is proposed to function as a resource for all British Columbians," Gilmour wrote. "Under normal forms of incorporation, only permanent residents participate in determining the future course of community development, yet many more non-residents than residents will be paying for the community’s support and will be affected by its future development. This suggests that some special form of local administration may be appropriate for the future."
Gilmour’s report would prove to be central to the transformation of Whistler from a weekend ski area to an international resort, but the timing of the report may have been almost as important as its contents. The NDP government, of which Williams was the most powerful cabinet minister, only held office from August of 1972 to December of 1975. Whether a capitalist government, or a cabinet minister with less faith in planning than Williams, would have placed a moratorium on private development while it assessed the Whistler situation will never be known. But Williams wasn’t the only one worried about the haphazard form of Whistler’s development.
In the early ’70s former Canadian ski team coach Al Raine and his wife Nancy Greene had their eye on Powder Mountain, west of Whistler, for development. In 1974 Raine’s development proposal was turned down by the NDP. Furthermore, he was told the government wasn’t interested in an "elite sport" like skiing. Raine replied with a speech about the economic impact of tourism and the importance of winter sports to any tourist project.
A few weeks later the government responded by hiring Raine to prepare a report on the potential for ski resorts in the Squamish-Pemberton corridor. Some of Raine’s ideas, including the notion that Blackcomb held considerable skiing potential and the suggestion that a Whistler town centre be pedestrian oriented, made their way into Gilmour’s report.
In May of 1975 Williams’ hired Raine as the province’s first co-ordinator of ski development. Raine’s tasks included drafting the Commercial Alpine Ski Policy, which prescribed how ski area operators earn real estate development rights in exchange for lift capacity — a formula which proved integral to Blackcomb’s success. Raine also advised the Ministry of Municipal Affairs on zoning and land issues in Whistler at the same time the ministry was preparing special legislation to incorporate Whistler.
The Banff model, where a senior level of government had absolute control over a local advisory body, was considered for Whistler — and rejected by the Alta Lake Ratepayers Association. A modified municipal government was eventually agreed upon and in the spring of 1975 a special amendment to the Municipal Act was introduced in the legislature: The Resort Municipality of Whistler Act. Whistler property owners and residents would elect a mayor and three aldermen, while the province would appoint one alderman who would retain veto power, oversee financial issues and make sure that the province’s interests were maintained.
"The interests of the province were paramount," says Garry Watson, who was an elected alderman of the first three Whistler councils. "They owned the land for the town centre, they were bringing in a new ski area policy which applied to Blackcomb’s development and represented tremendous economic interests that the province had. They had a very major stake, and so wanted to have a good guiding hand present."
Whistler’s first election was held in the summer of 1975, with seven aldermanic candidates and two candidates for mayor: Pat Carleton, president of the chamber of commerce, and Paul Burrows, president of the ratepayers association. Carleton won the mayor’s race with 185 votes to Burrows’ 103. Watson topped the aldermanic field with 237 votes. John Hetherington with 178 votes and Bob Bishop with 176 votes also won election.
In early September the legislature passed an order in council proclaiming the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act and on September 6 the people of Whistler gathered for the swearing in of their first council — at least, many of them did.
The ceremony was planned to take place at the Roundhouse on top of Whistler Mountain but at the last minute it was moved to the base of the mountain at Creekside. Unfortunately Burrows didn’t get the message in time. He and his wife Jane had hiked up the north side of the mountain to the Roundhouse and were standing at the top of the mountain as Judge C.I. Walker officially swore in the council at the bottom of the hill.
Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Lorimer attended the ceremony and announced that Al Raine would be the province’s representative on council.
"Whistler is an experiment," Lorimer said, "and if it is successful we expect to incorporate other communities that have a similar problem, places such as Tofino that have a small residential community but thousands of visitors in the summer."
Slim Fougberg, chairman of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, presented Carleton with a gavel to help him put the new council to work. It was one of the few material objects the local government possessed — council meetings were held in Carleton’s garage.
And the new council did set to work. Basic administrative and zoning bylaws had to be adopted and work on the official community plan, which Gilmour had advocated in his report a year earlier, was initiated. Raine was charged with overseeing the engineering of the valley sewer system. Order was coming to the valley. Momentum and public support for the village and the development of Blackcomb was starting to build.
And then, in the fall of 1975, the NDP called an election and lost.
The political gulf between the NDP and the free enterprise Social Credit party was enormous. Many Socreds looked upon initiatives taken by the NDP during their three years in office as things that had to be undone, and Whistler was most definitely an NDP creation.
For three months the infant Whistler council tried to elicit a commitment from the Socreds but were met with silence.
Meanwhile, the Whistler Development Association, which included Norm Paterson, John Taylor and a few other private land owners, saw the change of governments as an opportunity to renew their opposition to the village plan and to push for an end to the moratorium on development.
On January 9, 1976 most of Whistler gathered in L’Apres for a public hearing on the official community plan, and members of the Whistler Development Association were there to express their opposition. Tom Wells, Paterson’s partner from Imperial Ventures, began by saying, "I think it appropriate to again remind council and the public that private enterprise created Whistler and private enterprise should be encouraged to proceed with development of the entire area as a community."
Paterson was more direct.
"If this community plan proceeds it will only benefit a few developers who are on council!" he said accusingly.
Pat Carleton broke Slim Fougberg’s gavel while ordering Paterson to "Sit down!"
Despite the opposition of the Whistler Development Association, a clear majority of residents and property owners supported the official community plan. But approval from the province was still not forthcoming. Frustrated, council members voted to resign if the provincial government didn’t support the community plan. Carleton, Raine and Watson went to Victoria to confront the new Municipal Affairs Minister, Hugh Curtis.
"We sat outside his door, because we couldn’t get an appointment, and said, ‘We’re here, we’re not going anywhere. We’re prepared to wait’," Watson recalls.
"When we finally got in to see him, he described how he’d had a delegation from the Whistler Development Association — planners, a bunch of people, a great model. He figured they must have spent $10,000 on the model alone. They had trestles set up in his office to show it.
"So here had been these guys telling this story about this magnificent plan and everything, and we were getting worried. And Curtis, I’ll never forget this, he said: ‘You know, I never saw such a display of bullshit baffles brains in my life.’
"I remember looking at Pat Carleton and this grin started to come across his face. Suddenly we realized Curtis wasn’t siding with them. He said, ‘Gentlemen, I agree with what you’re doing.’"
"You could see weight fall off Mayor Carleton’s shoulders," Raine recalls, "as he had all the resignations of the elected council in his back pocket if the decision had gone the other way — he was prepared to hand the municipality back to the province.
"I’ve always believed that Hugh Curtis’ decision was one of the more courageous decisions because the pressure was on him to make a decision the other way and I think he had to reach deep inside his conscience and do what was right for Whistler, not what was maybe politically right. Especially since a Social Credit government was considered free enterprise and this was taking an almost big brother approach."
Getting the Socreds to buy into the Whistler plan was important, but immediately there were a dozen other issues to tackle. The official community plan identified the village concept between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, but it was really just an objective. The details — how it was to be developed, exactly where it was to be located, the design of the village and then zoning bylaws — all had to be finalized before any physical work could be done.
The preferred village site was on the Fitzsimmons Creek flood plain, but government policy stated a village couldn't be built behind dikes. Bureaucrats suggested that to avoid the flood hazard the village be built on what is now the Blackcomb Benchlands, but that didn't work for Whistler Mountain. A technical solution was eventually arrived at: move the dikes back from the banks of Fitzsimmons Creek, call them "training walls" and bury the whole idea in what was referred to as "The Comic Book."
Knowing cabinet ministers are too busy to read detailed arguments, a booklet was prepared with sketches and drawings alongside all the technical rhetoric. Cabinet members bought the drawings, ignored the verbiage and the village site was approved.
A steering committee, consisting of three deputy ministers, Raine and Watson, was established to continue planning and structuring of the town centre. The province proposed its housing corporation develop the site using the sale of single family lots to finance the project. Whistler representatives rejected the idea.
"We had a working session up here and discovered that their staff had very unrealistic plans," Watson recalls.
The steering committee organized a think tank session with Aspen Mayor Stacey Standley, representatives from Vail, Gage Davis of Boulder, Colorado, developers and financial experts. They concluded that a municipal development corporation was the right body to develop the town centre. Curtis, a former mayor of Saanich, understood the process of community planning and the municipality's requirements and approved the creation of The Whistler Village Land Company.
All the shares of WVLC — or as it came to be called, the land company — were held by the municipality. The province put the Crown land for the town centre into the company, with controls and provisions for payment as the land was developed.
In November of 1977 the team of Doug Sutcliffe, Neil Griggs and Jim Moodie was hired to prepare a development plan for the town centre. And after various proposals for the village design were considered, the architectural firms of Waisman, Dewar, Macdonald and John Perkins were selected to come up with a final design. With the sewer going ahead, a call for proposals to develop Blackcomb and the town centre plans taking shape, 1978 promised to be a big year for the new municipality.
On April 7, 1978 the Whistler Village Land Company was officially incorporated, taking title to approximately 58 acres of Crown land that would eventually become the Whistler Village. In May, Whistler Mountain made a commitment to build lifts from the future village site up the mountain’s north side. And in June a final village plan was brought forward, or so the architects believed.
Waisman, Dewar, Macdonald and Perkins had done a lot of work on the village design, bringing it down to considerable detail.
"They were on a fixed fee contract, they worked really hard," Watson says. "When it came down to their final plan they said, ‘We’ve done our work.’ It was quite an acceptable plan, we just weren’t quite wholly comfortable with it. There were particular elements we introduced or asked them to do as the latter stages of the plan were being drafted — underground parking under the whole village, but that’s really an engineering issue.
"In the meantime," Watson continues, "we’d come across Eldon Beck through our visits to Vail. Those visits were not everybody in council going down on a paid trip, we went down on our own, paying our way. Al and I used to go with a hockey group every year. In any event, we got to know some of the people, and we were always impressed with Old Vail. Through meeting Terry Minger who was the administrator of Vail, we got on to Eldon Beck, and Al pursued that and then we agreed that we’d try to get Eldon to do the final massaging of the plan."
Beck, a landscape architect based in San Francisco, joined the Whistler group and by mid-July the village design had evolved to something very close to what was eventually built.
"Eldon really came in at the latter stages and it was difficult because Perkins and Macdonald had really worked hard and gone probably far beyond the fixed fee that they were going to be compensated," Watson recalls. "It came down to a final crunch and Macdonald was an old friend of mine, a social acquaintance from Vancouver, and I personally finally went to him and persuaded him would he please come to San Francisco and meet Eldon. Perkins was very resistant. He felt ‘God, what more can they ask of us’. But Blair Macdonald went with us down to San Francisco and met Eldon, and he and Eldon got their heads together."
On August 21 a small group of people gathered across the street from Myrtle Philip school for an official ground breaking ceremony. By the next spring the former garbage dump site would be alive with bulldozers, dump trucks and excavators. But 1978 held still more announcements.
On October 3 Environment Minister Jim Neilsen announced Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd., a subsidiary of the Aspen Ski Company and the Federal Business Development Bank, had won the right to develop Blackcomb Mountain. Later that month the federal and provincial governments announced the Travel Industry Development Subsidiary Agreement (TIDSA), which provided forgivable loans for tourism development. Of the $25 million allocated to British Columbia, Whistler received $10.5 million. The money became the working capital for the town centre development: $2.5 million for underground parking, $2.4 million for a road access and a bridge across Fitzsimmons Creek to the base of Blackcomb, $300,000 for Arnold Palmer’s golf course design fees, and the balance for a multi-purpose recreation centre, known as the Resort Centre.
It may be that in deciding to allocate $10.5 million to Whistler the federal and provincial governments implicitly recognized the value of what was happening at Whistler, but more likely it was Doug Sutcliffe’s work that garnered the money. Sutcliffe had discovered the TIDSA program while it was still being organized. As a result, Whistler was working on its application before the program was announced, and the application was in the government’s hands the day after the announcement.
In November of 1978 Carleton and Watson were re-elected for a third term each and Raine was re-appointed to council. Rolly Horsey and Sid Young won election for the first time. But what the new council didn’t know was that they were under investigation by the RCMP.
Unidentified individuals had accused council members of being on the take and convinced the RCMP they should look into it. The investigation included taps on the telephones of Carleton, Raine and Watson. The first Watson and Raine heard of it was during a meeting with Hugh Curtis, who made them each sign a sworn affidavit that they didn’t own shares in the Aspen Ski Company and had no agreement with the company by which they would benefit. The investigation found no wrong doing and the matter was eventually dropped, but it was another dramatic moment for a local government that had only been established three years earlier.
On December 27, 1978 the successful bidders for the first 12 town centre parcels — phase I of the village — were announced. More than 100 bids were received for the 12 parcels, each of which had very specific design parameters and intended uses.
"We were bringing in a whole new planning control technique, which is the control of the owner, which is far, far beyond the control of the municipality working under the Municipal Act," Watson says.
"We could say to the bidder, if we don’t like the colour of your hair we’re not going to sell the land to you. And those parcels, when that first phase offering was put out, that offer called for curriculum vitae of the developer, the investor, the architect and the operator. We considered all of those elements, and also dictated the use. We said there had to be a hardware store, a drug store, a grocery store, liquor store…"
Specific use of the buildings was controlled through covenants on the properties, rather than zoning. The idea was to build a nucleus of essential services in the town centre that would draw both residents and tourists to the area. As well, all of the condo-hotel units above the retail and restaurant space were required to go into a rental pool when not in use by their owners. The intention here was that the village would be a lively place, full of people and activities at all times of the day.
But there were no large corporations willing to invest in Whistler in those days either, so strata-titling also helped with financing of projects. Most of the early investors were people who had some previous experience with Whistler, and some faith in the order that had been brought to the valley in just a few years.
The spring of 1979 was to see construction begin on the first 12 town centre parcels, the buildings surrounding what would become Village Square. Work was also underway on Blackcomb and in July of 1979 amendments to the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act allowed for the creation of the Whistler Resort Association, a step which the Aspen Ski Company insisted upon. The economy was strong, local people were enthusiastic about the developments and the future looked bright for the new resort.
Next: Hitting the wall.