When Jamie Grant made his pitch to the new owners of what is now called the Whistler Racket Club (WRC) two years ago to transform the long sleepy tennis facility, he kept it simple.
“My presentation to Beedie Group was to bring the whole community back to this space,” said Grant, the co-owner and director of the Whistler Racket Club Group.
Since opening the rebranded space in early 2020, it’s clear Grant and his team have made leaps and bounds towards that goal. With an array of activities on offer that now includes tennis, pickleball, axe-throwing, live bands, DJs, and a working restaurant and bar, the club has turned into a vibrant social epicentre, with its membership catapulting from just 40 to 520, Grant said.
But for some residents of nearby Montebello, the club’s success has come at the expense of their quality of life.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said Zygi Plazak, who has owned his Montebello home since 2011 and serves as the neighbourhood strata’s treasurer. “We’re totally powerless. We’ve gone down every avenue. We’ve tried to be good citizens. You can’t talk to the Racket Club; they don’t care about us.”
Several residents Pique heard from said the noise levels can at times reach extreme levels, with loud music amplified several nights a week as well as during the day when pickleball is being played. They also raised issue with axe-throwing on the site, which they said can “sound like gunshots” and is often followed by loud yelling. Some have even gone so far as to take decibel readings, claiming that the levels can reach higher than 80 decibels—roughly equivalent to a lawnmower—even with all the doors and windows shut.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) confirmed there have been 11 noise complaints this summer connected to the club, and a fine was levied last month after complaints from several residents came in on the same night for noise that both bylaw and the RCMP agreed was excessive.
“When they have loud music, it doesn’t matter. We close our bedroom windows; it doesn’t matter. It’s just pervasive. You can’t even listen to the TV in here,” said Bob Cessford, whose property sits kitty-corner from the nearest pickleball court, about 15 metres away.
For a parcel of land that holds immense value to both its owners and the municipality as one of the last large development sites so close to the village core, the tension symbolizes what is bound to be a recurring theme in Whistler’s future. How do you balance the shifting needs of a growing resort eager to preserve its remaining community and recreation hubs with the rights of homeowners entitled to a certain level of peace and quiet?
“It’s important we get this right. It’s important we land the elements that are best suited for the site here,” said Jessie Gresley-Jones, the RMOW’s general manager of resort experience, referring to the enhanced rezoning process that is still ongoing for the Northlands site, which includes the WRC. “I think we are a municipality that has expectations around limits to its growth, and so we do need to figure out what that means for us. How do we address the gaps for our community and the needs for our community and our guests as we move forward?”
A victim of success?
Cessford has owned his unit since Montebello was first built, and he remembers the relatively quiet period when the club housed an underused tennis facility as well as the Wild Wood Café under the former ownership.
“We had no issues,” he recalled. “Occasionally the Wild Wood would have a wedding or a staff party or something and the noise would go beyond 10 p.m., and we as a council and as a strata, we just ignored it. They were good neighbours, so we didn’t care and it was rare.”
But of course, the former Racquet Club wasn’t profitable, and when the Beedie Group purchased the space in 2017, they were keen to change that. (Beedie Group did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.)
“They understand I have a business to run and I pay a big lease to run that business and Beedie likes that I pay that lease,” said Grant.
“So they don’t want to restrict me, but there are politics involved with any future development here and any future tennis club or racquet club that might be built.”
With its proximity to the village, as well as being a recreational facility, there was “always an expectation that activity was taking place there,” Gresley-Jones said. “It might look and in some ways sound a little different, but we have to remember that’s a two-minute walk from Marketplace and the core of what is a very busy resort community.”
For their part, residents expect a certain level of noise, but believe the flurry of new uses at the site doesn’t align with the family-centric neighbourhood.
“Our neighbourhood is caught between several forces which are in play here,” read an Aug. 23 letter sent to mayor and council signed by seven Montebello residents. “The WRC is trying to impress their landlord … with their ability to run a recreation facility. So it’s no longer a [racquet] club.”
The residents also expressed frustration over what they feel is an unwillingness on the part of the WRC to work with the neigbourhood on solutions.
“They don’t like us. They came in here with a big attitude that they were going to do whatever they want. That’s what they told us, that we’re going to make as much noise as we want between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.,” said Cessford. “So their good-neighbour policy has a few flaws.”
Both Cessford and Plazak said they have spoken with Grant about their concerns to no avail, while Grant maintained he is willing to work with them but has yet to hear directly from any residents. He also noted that Beedie Group, which did meet with residents both online and in-person in recent weeks, took the onus to communicate with the neighbourhood, something that will change moving forward.
“I spoke to Beedie last week and we had a nice long conversation about it and what we thought were accommodations that haven’t worked, which we understand, so the next step is for me to sit down and directly speak with the Montebello residents who have concerns about how much activity we have going on here,” Grant said.
Sympathizing with residents’ concerns, Grant noted the club has followed local bylaws and made several concessions to mitigate the noise, including turning the volume down and cutting off the music earlier than advertised.
“So we are making an effort, but I can understand how they would maybe see it appears like we are not—because we are loud. There are a lot of people here,” he said.
Residents have urged the club to relocate both its axe-throwing area and pickleball courts further away from the neighbourhood, but, according to Grant, the layout of the space makes that difficult. Firstly, he said axe-throwing cannot take place in any liquor-licensed space, leaving only a few options—although he did note that the axe-throwing, pickleball and other activities would be moved indoors for the fall in the next few weeks. Relocating the pickleball courts would also be tricky, he said, given the location of stadium lights and bleachers.
“If I were to redesign the club, that’s obviously not where I would put that court. It would be over closer to the parking lot area where there are less residences,” he said.
Grant conceded there are other measures the club is exploring, including erecting soundproof fencing around the outdoor courts. “When I speak to residents this week, it’s a tough ask but I’m going to ask them to be patient,” he added.
‘We just feel that it’s ours’
Whatever the future of the site may hold, it’s clear the WRC has gained significant traction in a community starved for family-friendly recreational and social space.
“I think when we are at the club and we’re playing pickleball and we get to have dinner and then we get to hear local musicians, we just feel that it’s ours,” said Suzanne Johnston, a WRC member who is usually at the club five days a week. “We feel that we’re back in old Whistler again. It’s so organic. I can’t even describe how much of a sense of community we have there.”
That community feel seems to be all the more desirable after a year and a half of COVID life as well as a worsening labour crisis.
“People are looking for places to go when not all of our businesses are fully functioning. So there’s the strange impact of the labour shortage spilling over into these areas outside of the village,” said Gresley-Jones.
In its latest round of public input on the Northlands rezoning, Gresley-Jones noted “the significant amount of feedback from the tennis group in terms of their interest in seeing those facilities continue forward into the future” as well as “the desire to see a sort of community hub onsite.”
Given the Beedie Group’s desire to develop the site, which is almost sure to come with a housing component given Whistler’s ongoing need, Gresley-Jones said the current amenities could become more centrally located.
“I think the opportunity comes along the street that connects into the site, around what might be a common open space in the centre that may have some of those more community-focused, potentially commercial activities,” he said. “From what we heard from the community, we see those as internal and central to the site, not necessarily where they are currently located.”
Other major themes that emerged out of the feedback included a desire for a spectrum of housing units, green-building standards, and a range of amenities and services like childcare and small commercial enterprises that would address existing gaps in the community.
More substantial design concepts for the site are expected to be presented later this fall.