Whistler village facing incremental erosion 

click to enlarge LEANNA RATHKELLY PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER BLACKCOMB
  • Leanna Rathkelly Photo courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb

Way back in the pre-1980 days of Whistler, before Blackcomb, before the village, weekend skiers and residents who needed groceries, and didn't have time to go to Squamish, bought them from the original Husky station. Packaged foods and limp produce were generally all that was available as food wholesalers delivered to Whistler perhaps once a week.

It's a far cry from the situation today, where you can pick up Atlantic lobster, organic produce, Australian cookies and specialty meats from Whistler's grocery stores. And consumers' choices are going to increase next year when Canada's largest food retailer, Loblaws, opens Whistler's sixth grocery store, in the Rainbow subdivision.

According to a press release, "Loblaws will operate a full-service grocery store focusing its market on the residents of Rainbow and the surrounding communities." Which is great for those people. It may not be so good for the health of Whistler Village.

This is not Loblaws' fault. The company is well respected and all indications are they will be great corporate citizens. In fact, Loblaws' mission statement could have been written by Whistler 2020: "We are committed to being socially responsible by respecting the environment, sourcing with integrity, making a positive difference in our community, reflecting our nation's diversity and being a great place to work."

But with the addition of a 15,000 square foot Loblaws — roughly the same size as Nesters Market — and its 76 commercial parking stalls, the Rainbow subdivision is poised to become a significant hub in Whistler. In addition to Loblaws Rainbow, it will be home to Whistler's second (!) gas station. There will also be another 6,000 square feet of commercial space, which is expected to include a pharmacy. If a liquor store is among the other businesses at Rainbow there really will be little reason for residents north of the village to go to the village.

Again, this isn't a problem Loblaws created. Nor can the Rainbow developers be blamed, although the current developers have successfully pushed to increase the size of the grocery store in the neighbourhood. And the three Whistler councils that have dealt with the Rainbow development have each tried to act in the community's best interests.

But while solving some of Whistler's most critical problems — Rainbow and Cheakamus Crossing have effectively met the current demand for affordable resident-restricted housing — we have incrementally eroded one of the founding tenets of Whistler as a resort: the village is the hub where residents and visitors come together. Indeed, that was why the first buildings in the village included a pharmacy, liquor store, grocery store, hardware store and pub.

A year ago council received the Rollo Report, which evaluated Whistler's commercial and industrial opportunities. The report found there was a five per cent commercial vacancy rate in the village. That was considered "quite high compared to historical rates." Municipal planner Mike Kirkegaard called the health and vitality of the village "fair" at the time. The report stated that Creekside "continues to struggle" from a commercial perspective, while commercial vacancy in Function Junction and Cheakamus Crossing was at 20 per cent.

The situation in the village may have improved in the last year with the Olympic Plaza becoming a stronger focal point, thanks in part to money for concerts, festivals and the outdoor skating rink. But the municipality's thinking on commercial development in neighbourhoods has been muddled.

The intent was and is to cut down on traffic throughout the valley by providing commercial facilities that meet the needs of individual neighbourhoods. The municipality tries to keep these commercial spaces to a minimum to protect the village. Developers and commercial operators inevitably say the space is not large enough to be viable.

This was the case with Rainbow, where the original developers proposed a grocery store of 700 square metres, about 7,500 square feet. In 2010 the property was sold and the current developers determined the grocery store had to be at least twice that size.

Grocers, undoubtedly, understand their market better than non-grocers. Following the same logic, Whistlerites should understand their community better than non-Whistlerites. The argument could be made that Whistlerites have demonstrated this by solving one of their most pressing needs — employee housing. And the Rainbow development has been a significant part of the solution.

However, the success of Whistler Village is fundamental to the success of the whole resort. A commercial development outside the village that includes 76 parking stalls and a gas station is inevitably going to serve more than just "residents of Rainbow and surrounding communities." It's going to draw Pemberton residents returning home as well as residents of Emerald Estates, Alpine Meadows, Nicklaus North and, eventually, Wedge Woods. That's a significant slice of the valley's population. And with Creekside Market serving many Creekside residents, Olives serving at least some of the Cheakamus Crossing/Function Junction residents and others shopping at Nesters there is a risk the village could become a place just for tourists, rather than a place for residents and visitors alike.

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