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Enhanced rezoning process for Northlands moving ahead after latest round of community engagement

Plans for a recreation facility, more employee housing high on Whistler’s wish list as project moves into Phase 3

To Whistler Councillor Arthur De Jong, the development of 4500 Northlands represents the resort’s “last swing [at] a globally-recognized, award-winning village.”

For De Jong, that means plans need “to be futuristic and embrace [Whistler’s] net-zero mid-century goals,” but it’s also why Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) staff, elected officials and property developers are taking extra steps to ensure they get every aspect of the development right.

An enhanced rezoning process for the 5.2-hectare parcel of land is moving into Phase 3 following Tuesday, Feb. 21’s council meeting, when Whistler’s elected officials received their first official glimpse at the community feedback resulting from initial site proposals released during Phase 2.

Aside from the Whistler Racket Club (WRC) that currently operates on site, the sizeable piece of land just north of Whistler Village sits largely empty. Property developer Beedie Living is planning to use the site to add hundreds of new beds to Whistler’s housing supply, in addition to community amenities and green space.

Feedback presented to council Tuesday proved the community isn’t necessarily in agreeance when it comes to the best use for the land, but crowds rallying to save the WRC and build more employee housing stood out as the loudest.

The backstory

Back in 1988, a property developer secured the rights to the land with the condition that it build a new tennis club—including a stadium court, four indoor and 12 outdoor courts—capable of hosting live televised events.

That developer built three indoor courts, seven outdoor courts and a dining facility in 1993. Though those facilities were intended to be temporary, they remain in operation as the WRC.

The Holborn Group purchased the land in 2002, before selling to current owner Beedie Developments in 2017. Thanks to Whistler’s new Official Community Plan, Beedie doesn’t have the same obligation to maintain existing courts or to build the world-class tennis facility conceptualized three-and-a-half decades ago. Instead, the developer is proposing the construction of mixed-residential housing that would become Whistler Village’s newest—and, most likely, final—enclave.

Council initially endorsed an enhanced, three-phase rezoning process to guide the consideration of plans for 4500 Northlands in March 2021.

Phase 1 saw RMOW staff carry out community engagement that ultimately informed a list of six “guiding principles” for the prospective development: balance resort and community needs; strengthen sense of place and social connections; provide diverse housing opportunities; enhance connectivity and mobility; accelerate climate action solutions and address resource use; and, finally, integrate and enhance nature.

Phase 2, meanwhile, saw Beedie submit two alternative development concepts last June proposing its vision for the site, intended to fall in line with the above-listed principles.

In both renderings, townhouses and low- and mid-rise housing surrounded central green space, while employee housing and community and commercial uses were proposed in a “community hub” located on the southeast portion of the site. Each plan called for underground parking and minimal roadways, and emphasized connections to the existing trail network for foot and bike traffic.

The proposed building heights in both concepts included two- to three-storey townhouses on the northern and eastern portions of the site, four- and six-storey residential buildings in the southwest, and an 11-storey residential building in the northwest, which would make it among the tallest buildings in Whistler. The municipality pegged the maximum bed-unit potential for the parcel at 832.

What was missing from each concept was space for racket sports facilities. That omission struck a nerve with dozens of passionate WRC supporters who turned up to a June 2022 council meeting to advocate for the inclusion of a racket sport facility within the resort.

“With these two alternative development concepts, I think it’s important to remember that these were created just as tools to think about the site, to make it easier for all of us and for the community to consider what could happen on the site, and provide their thoughts on what were the best things, what’s missing, what do they really want to see [from the proposals],” said RMOW manager of planning John Chapman in a presentation to council on Feb. 21.

As Chapman explained, the RMOW sought public feedback about the concepts through several avenues last summer.

An online questionnaire yielded 365 submissions, while 180 members of the public attended an in-person open house at Myrtle Philip Community School on June 13. RMOW staff also hosted pop-up community engagement sessions at the Farmers’ Market, Meadow Park and the Whistler Public Library, as well as a series of 16 “digital lunch chats” conducted via Zoom.

Municipal staffers also presented to a range of local committees.

What did the community have to say in Phase 2?

Analyzing the results of that public engagement paints a picture of conflicting perspectives throughout the community: some claimed the lot’s prime, central location isn’t an “appropriate” spot to build employee rental housing, or expressed concerns “the development will only compound the capacity issues created by the unconstrained growth already in place,” while others praised the high-density plans and building heights. One commenter said they felt the proposal “is too much for the space,” while another called the concept “very appealing.” Dozens upon dozens of responses condemned the exclusion of a racket sport facility, while others noted “a private tennis facility is not a public community amenity,” and said Whistler “needs housing, not tennis.”

Still, a few common themes emerged.

Employee housing was the clear winner when it came to priority land use, followed by large-scale recreation facilities. Commercial space for small, independent local shops was rated the lowest priority, with a world-class tennis facility rated the second lowest.

Asked “what building forms and sizes should be prioritized?” the majority of questionnaire respondents agreed “a mix of forms including some taller buildings that allows for more open space and community uses” would be best.

“People in the community really liked space that was welcoming to locals and visitors. They liked the inclusion of employee housing. We heard a lot of positive feedback on how the site design prioritized active transportation—active movement, rather than vehicle and car space,” Chapman explained. “Folks commented positively on the variety and scale of the buildings and the way the site design sensitively used the natural topography and the amenity stream.

“We also heard lots of things that people didn’t really like and lots of comments on what was missing,” he added.

Aside from the oft-mentioned exclusion of a racket sports facility, many respondents felt the concepts presented did not propose enough employee housing, Chapman said. Additionally, many locals felt open space or amenities included in the new development shouldn’t replicate existing offerings in the community, for example at nearby Whistler Olympic Plaza.

“We heard as well the concepts maybe don’t optimize density on the site,” Chapman added. “So that was great. That’s been helpful information.”

In terms of recreation facilities, the report presented to council on Feb. 21 marked a vast departure from the previous staff report, which failed to mention the WRC even once.

In response to the question “should a dedicated tennis/pickleball facility, like what currently exists, be a priority inclusion for the site?” 55 per cent said “yes,” compared to the 39 per cent that said “no” and the five per cent that said they didn’t know.

Though many advocated for maintaining the current courts, others called for a new, scaled-down version of the WRC to be built within the new development, while others suggested having the property developer contribute to the construction of a new facility off-site, with Spruce Grove, Meadow Park or Cheakamus raised as possible locations.

What’s next?

Whistler council voted Tuesday to proceed with Phase 3 of the project, which calls for the development of a preferred rezoning concept for the site, followed by another round of community engagement once that plan is ready to be shared.

“I think we’re anticipating that the preferred concept will retain the preferable elements that were identified during Phase 2; it will address those key directions, but it will probably look different,” said Chapman.

For example, the RMOW “would want to support the rezoning request for a change in the market accommodation component of the development, from existing hotel to residential,” Chapman added, as well as pursue an increase in the amount of employee housing proposed and support “further investigation of a right-size destination recreation facility” with tennis and pickleball courts.

RMOW staff will also host a new mix of online and in-person events, including an open house where the community will be invited to learn about the proposal and share feedback, as well as other online opportunities for community members to review the proposal, ask questions and provide feedback directly to municipal staff. In addition, a public hearing will take place prior to council’s third reading of a zoning bylaw for the site.

A timeline for when that community engagement might take place was not immediately available.

Tuesday’s discussion prompted Coun. Jessie Morden—Whistler’s first locally born-and-raised elected official—to look to the past for perspective.

“I remember when I was a little kid and the newer part of the village was being built, and it was scary,” she recalled. “And we were scared that we would lose that sense of community, but over the years, it’s been a great addition to the community and I just hope that this project integrates [similarly] into Whistler.”

What does Whistler’s mayor hope to see built on the Northlands site?

Following Tuesday’s report, Mayor Jack Crompton appeared to side with those calling for higher-density plans for the site.

“Whistler is a beautiful open valley with all kinds of space set aside for recreation and nature, and gravel lots in the middle of town are a limited resource,” he said. “I’m convinced we should optimize their use for Whistler worker housing as much as we possibly can.”

The mayor also offered a glimmer of hope for the approximately 50 tennis and pickleball proponents in attendance for Tuesday’s council meeting, eager to see their interests represented in amended development proposals for the site.

“I look forward to seeing what the recreation facility looks like—I think a lot of people do,” he said. “And I hope it is able to deliver for all of our community. I hope that it’s a great space for racket sports, but also the existing bubble is useful for all manner of things, and I look forward to seeing something that really most members of our community can imagine themselves using and being a part of.

“I think Councillor Forsyth said it well for me: no less than what we have, as far as the recreation amenity is concerned,” Crompton concluded. “That’s really guided my thinking as we’ve considered this.”

- With files from Braden Dupuis and Brandon Barrett