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Maxed Out: Is there a better place for the Whistler Racket Club?

'The answer is yes... with an asterisk'
tennis Maxed out
Tennis? Anyone?

Tennis? Anyone?

There was shock, anger and dismay among the racketeers on Tuesday, June 7, when Resort Municipality of Whistler officials and the public were given an overview of the two similar-yet-different proposals for the 5.8-hectare Northlands project.

While both dished up attractive places to live, neither showed any evidence of the existing Whistler Racket Club (WRC). Quickly dubbed “preliminary,” the reaction was nonetheless vocal, disappointed and in the case of one well-heeled property owner, fatuous.

“Early stages, early stages,” chimed in the mayor and staff. Still plenty of time for public input. Okay, here goes.

Aside from the 11-storey building that’s likely to give the planning department heartburn, the plans look good. More importantly, they constitute the highest and best use of the land. They provide a transition between the village core, the more commercial north end of town and the residential neighbourhoods beyond. They are places people can live. They are accessible and connected to both the village, the mountains and the trail networks. 

And they’re better off without the WRC as currently constituted. 

Don’t get out the torches and pitchforks just yet.

Way back in the last century, when Whistler was hoping to become world-class and four-season, the Northlands were The Sticks. Nothing there. Nothing across the way where Marketplace is now. Nothing.

The Holy Grail at the time was chasing amenities that would turn Whistler into a four-season, world-class resort. Key to that was—don’t laugh—a Björn Borg tennis facility. Before most Whistleratics were born, Björn was a tennis rockstar. Swedish, blond, big smile, striped headband and winner of 11 Grand Slam singles titles between 1974 and 1981. His name alone would have been a draw. 

Björnland was a no-show, and Björn today would be more likely to thrill the audience at a Canadian Association for Retired Persons meeting. But a tennis facility was somehow built. And its location was perfect. It was out of the way, a lonely outpost in an undeveloped section of land.

But if it wasn’t already there, no one would ever consider building it there today. No developer would plunk a tennis club down in a high-profile residential neighbourhood and no planner who knew what she was doing would approve such a proposal.

The very success of the WRC illuminates the reason. The two uses are incompatible. As WRC increased its outdoor activities, disputes with neighbouring residents increased. Understandable. Pickleball, tennis, axe throwing, live bands and DJs are all high-volume, enjoyed by people having a good time. Cocktails, barbecues and conversations on homeowners’ patios are all activities made less pleasant by nearby people enjoying high-volume activities. It’s a classic standoff.

And one that is played out time and again as residential areas encroach on existing commercial enterprises, albeit this time it was the other way around. The outcome is generally a foregone conclusion. Eventually, commercial entities that don’t fit with the quiet enjoyment of residential areas are squeezed out. 

So, how can we make everyone happy? Is there a better place for the WRC?

The answer is yes... with an asterisk.

The location is Spruce Grove Park. Built in the mid-1990s, Spruce Grove was initially planned around three softball diamonds with a central concession stand, a multi-use field house and the future development of two soccer pitches overlapping the outfield areas of two of the ball diamonds. Its purpose was to provide a location in addition to Meadow Park that would meet the recreational needs of the community. 

Along the way, out of necessity rather than design, an increasing part of it was leased to Whistler Waldorf School. That is the asterisk. 

Just as the WRC is an incompatible use in the future development of Northlands, Waldorf is an incompatible use of the recreational opportunities at Spruce Grove. One that was planned to end years ago.

Waldorf at Spruce Grove was always envisioned as a temporary location. In 2013, Waldorf’s “Vision 2017” outlined plans for the school to be relocated to a site to be determined, an ambitious fundraising effort and a final move into their new, purpose-built, permanent home by 2017. 

The school’s administrator at the time told council they had lenders in place, a strong track record fundraising and managing debt and a parcel of land they were looking at next to the WedgeWoods neighbourhood north of Emerald.

Not a lot has been heard since as 2017 vanishes in the rearview mirror of time.

So is it time for the visions of both Spruce Grove and Waldorf school to be moved forward? Another potentially interesting community dialogue, don’t you think?

With a growing and aging population, demand for recreational amenities will only increase. One need only look to the rise of pickleball at WRC and Myrtle Philip to see this. For years there has been talk of the desire for a curling rink, a second sheet of ice for hockey and other recreation infrastructure. 

Spruce Grove and Meadow Park are both conveniently and centrally located and suitable for such infrastructure. Both have easy, non-motorized access by the Valley Trail and generous parking. Both have room for growth. Both have impediments as well.

The same population dynamics driving the need for recreational facilities drive the need for Waldorf school. Whistler is already strapped for school space and facing a growing demand from young families. There has been much talk and work on lining up a third elementary school in town, and there is no room for the current infrastructure to absorb the 200-plus students in Waldorf. 

Obviously this is going to require the active leadership and intervention of municipal and provincial government. It’s not something the RMOW or Waldorf are going to be able to accomplish on their own. And it’s not something that’s going to be accomplished by kicking the can further down the road. It is yet another challenge to a town that has outgrown its earlier planning, development and accomplishments.

There are no bad actors in this drama. These are the kind of tough decisions and tough actions any town has to make when it experiences the kind of growth Whistler is undergoing. Maybe it’s tougher here because our footprint is small, real estate is insanely expensive and we are hobbled by a single highway carrying a lot of traffic. But it’s the hand we’ve been dealt and the reality we’ve created.

What was good enough 20 years ago isn’t good enough today, and it’s going to be worse tomorrow if we don’t start making bold decisions now.