Just beyond the gates at the end of Mount Fee Road in Cheakamus Crossing, crews are hard at work preparing what’s known as Parcel A for development.
In the coming weeks, the first of two apartment buildings will start to take shape—but at the moment crews are contending with some long-buried infrastructure left over from the Olympics.
“You see blue pipes in there … all this pipe is not where it’s meant to be,” said Councillor Duane Jackson, surveying the hole that will soon become an underground parkade, during a walking tour of the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) Phase 2 lands in Cheakamus on March 1.
“So we’re chasing it all over the place.”
The pipe was laid in a haste pre-Olympics, Jackson explained.
“There used to be [about] eight temporary buildings here, so all of this stuff was thrown in without a plan,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of unknowns, and that’s why we’re doing it this way, instead of tendering it, and then having a whole bunch of extras.”
Once it’s pulled from the ground, servicing and foundation work can begin for the new apartment buildings.
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” Jackson said.
“We really want to get going here in a month, because interest rates are going up. There’s no time like now.”
Beyond where the second apartment building will be built on Parcel A, Jackson pointed out some spare space that might be suitable for an infill building, and north of that, a third site on top of a knoll.
“On a clear day, the views to the north and west are pretty spectacular,” he said.
Once fully developed, Phase 2 will include five parcels for employee housing (with about 295 units) and 18 market for-sale lots.
While Parcel A and its 100 units is the main focus right now, consideration is being given to the other parcels as well: Fifty-four apartment units in two buildings on Parcel B/C; 74 apartment units in two connected buildings on D1; 44 townhouses on D2; and 23 single family and duplex units on D3.
Jackson noted that current plans for Parcel D2 are to make the townhouses available for purchase through the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA).
“This building could be for sale or ownership, but once it’s serviced, some future council will figure out what the opportunities are,” he said.
Next to it is Parcel D3, where 18 market lots will be developed next to the Cheakamus River.
While the new buildings on Parcel A will be heated using the neighbourhood’s District Energy System (DES), the higher elevations of the market lots may make electricity more economical, Jackson said.
“When you get up here it takes quite a lot of infrastructure or pump stations and everything else to service 18 houses that you could easily do with electric heat pumps,” he said. “So the discussion is at what point does it not make economic sense?”
The expected 295 units don’t even make use of the largest parcel on the books: Parcel E, which, at 75,000 square metres, accounts for nearly half of Phase 2’s entire 155,000-square-metre footprint.
But its development is a three-to-five-year project, and will likely include lower density housing than seen on Parcels A through D (think townhouses and duplexes only).
A covenant will also be registered to the parcel, which will protect environmentally sensitive and unique features like the Lower Ridge Trail, Jackson said.
“WDC (the Whistler 2020 Development Corp) contemplates a relatively small footprint on the very large parcel, and will probably start to explore access and land-use analysis once we’re confident all the pieces are in place to allow the existing phase to advance without delay,” he said.
“Ultimately the highest and best use of the land will probably take into account what we learn from the build-out of the initial phases.”
FINANCING THE FUTURE
Though work is well underway on site, the project still comes with unknowns as it relates to financing.
The RMOW included a $10-million line of credit for the development in its 2021 budget, which is paying for site work and to build an extension of Mount Fee Road.
The Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), meanwhile, has applied for grant funding through BC Housing, though word through the grapevine is that competition for the funding is stiff, said Eric Martin, board chair of the WDC, an RMOW subsidiary.
Subdivision of the Phase 2 parcels is underway, and in the next month or two the WDC may start doing general advertising for the 18 market lots on D3, Martin said.
After servicing costs, the WDC hopes the lots will bring in about $15 million.
“At least some of it would be used [for construction of affordable housing], whether we get grants or not,” Martin said, adding that without grants, the WDC and RMOW will look to borrow.
“Right now we have the lowest rates we’ve seen in forever, as far as I remember, and we need to take advantage of these really quickly, because just an upturn of a half a point on today’s rates is like a 20-per-cent increase.”
Today’s low interest rates are “a huge part of the strategy” right now, Martin said, noting that the WDC is also looking at third-party financing.
“It’s very doubtful that there’s any kind of construction financing, or development financing, coming through BC housing or anybody these days, so we’re probably going to have to be in the open market for that,” he said.
“There’s so many balls in the air right now, and so we’re really focusing on getting ready … we just want to get to the point where once we know what our options are, we can go quickly.”
With potential for about 295 units of housing on Phase 2, the RMOW and WDC are “remaining pretty flexible and nimble” as it relates to the mix of purchase versus rental, Martin added.
The mix in the two buildings on Parcel A will depend, in part, on BC Housing grant funding (which would require the projects to be rental).
But the WDC and RMOW hear the need for more purchase product loud and clear.
“Just stand by. We’re very aware, it just really depends on a whole bunch of other things,” Martin said.
“But I think there’s a pretty good chance we’ll do some for-purchase product, for sure.”
The final mix of purchase and rental in Phase 2 “will all depend on funding,” Jackson added.
“But [on] any of these parcels you could consider a partnership with any other of the housing suppliers that are in town, and interested groups,” he said.
“So I think in the next 18 months … we’ll get our hands full with 100 units [on Parcel A] and hopefully plan for one other development.”
KNOCK ON WOOD
When construction gets underway on Parcel A, officials can only hope it goes as smoothly as it did on the WHA’s recent Granite Ridge building at 1330 Cloudburst Drive.
Ahead of schedule and under budget, by many accounts the 45-unit building in Cheakamus—the WHA’s fourth completion since 2018—was a developer’s dream.
The building is made up of 12 studios, 12 one bedrooms, 17 two bedrooms and four three-bedroom apartments, said Sam Mendl, the WHA’s resident housing development manager, during a tour of the building on March 1.
Originally scheduled for completion in July of this year, not even COVID could hinder the build, Mendl said.
The building includes shared laundry on each floor, and was built to BC Step Code 3 energy standards, the second highest in the province, he added.
Having carried the project from conception to completion, Mendl takes satisfaction in now seeing it teeming with activity.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Just seeing it busy, and seeing people moving in and stuff on balconies—it’s lived in, and that’s pretty rewarding.”
The new build at 1330 Cloudburst is a good representation of what’s to come on Parcel A—even the forms were saved to be re-used on the new buildings, Jackson said.