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Maxed Out: The Fourth Dimension—Part I

'You may have heard by now, assuming you haven’t just beamed in from another solar system: Whistler has a housing problem'
Whistler Village under construction in the summer of 1979.

You may have heard by now, assuming you haven’t just beamed in from another solar system: Whistler has a housing problem. Interestingly though, Whistler has had a housing problem since, let’s see, forever. Forever in the history of Whistler doesn’t stretch back beyond the middle of the last century. The history before that was of a place called Alta Lake, and before that whatever the Skwxwú7mesh and Lil’wat7úl people called it, which definitely wasn’t either Alta Lake or Whistler. [Editor’s Note: There were various small First Nations villages that dotted the land where Whistler sits today, including a village shared by the Lil’wat7úl and Skwxwú7mesh at the confluence of Rubble Creek and the Cheakamus River called Spo7ez.]

But that earlier history aside, Whistler has had a housing problem since the dreamers and skiers began to develop it. Initially, any oversight—and oversight is probably a good word for it—to the Wild West development of the nascent town was thumbs upped or downed by the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD). Whistler was within Area D of the SLRD, a tract that ran from the north boundary of Squamish to the south boundary of Pemberton. Area D was represented by a single director, one of nine.

The SLRD had the power to conduct planning studies, community planning and land-use zoning. The SLRD had little interest in exercising those powers. I won’t bore you with the reasons but, well, blame Squamish.

Early development here was pretty much left up to the early landowners, who, of course, had a high degree of civic interest and a humble degree of self-interest. Just kidding. They were in it for themselves and if they’d have had their way, Whistler Village would be where Barney’s Automotive is now.

To continue to beat a horse many of you might think have died by now, the province stepped in and slapped a development freeze on the town in 1974, a move roundly applauded by the landowners. Just kidding. See above.

In a joint statement by B.C.’s Resource Minister, Bob Williams, and Municipal Affairs Minister, Jim Lorimer—ironic he had the same name as the road, eh?—they said the freeze, aimed at largescale developments, might, if unplanned and unregulated, seriously affect land use and servicing plans that were being prepared. A year later, the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act was passed and Whistler gained control over its land area and future. Kind of.

Should you be under the misguided impression I keep this kind of trivia in my head, I don’t. But Garry Watson, who has been instrumental in the development and history of Whistler, does. Or at least did long enough to get it down on paper and graciously share it with me.

But I digress.

A key aspect of Whistler’s development and planning no one really took into account was the fourth dimension—time. When planners say they’re planning for the future, it’s a pretty narrow definition of the future, often just the amount of time it’ll take to complete the development. To their credit, no one doing the early planning for Whistler really imagined it would skyrocket into the success story it has become today. And, yes, I use the word success knowing full well some would disagree and, more to the point, success is a slippery concept.

For those of you who have only ever known Whistler as a ‘World-Class’ resort, let me gently remind you things were not always so. In those early days, before there was a Whistler Village, there were probably more naysayers than cheerleaders when it came to the subject of this town’s future success.

Many of the naysayers pointed out the drawbacks of the mountain: insufficient elevation, too close to the meteorological effects of the Pacific, reached by an unpaved road that was a road in name only among them.

What the naysayers didn’t take into account was the growing interest in skiing, the future development of Blackcomb and the unparalleled terrain the future resort would offer, at least in the North American context.

What the cheerleaders didn’t take into account was the havoc about to sideswipe their dreams. While the council of the day finally got provincial approval to site Whistler Village were it is today, and initial plans for the village had been created, and the Whistler Village Land Company formed, with work starting by the summer of 1979... no one ever dreamed that by August 1981, the Bank of Canada’s interest rate would top out just under 21 per cent and commercial banks’ prime rate would touch 23 per cent!

To put that into context, there are people in danger of losing their homes today because the Bank of Canada rate has hit 6.7 per cent.

But, again, I digress.

The province bailed Whistler out. The cost was high and eventually the province made out quite nicely on their investment, arguably at a high cost as a result of the rapidly accelerated development of Village North. Blackcomb Mountain was developed. Growth spurred more growth and Whistler became what it is today.

But as I said, no one really paid any attention to that fourth dimension. All the attention was lavished on how to make Whistler more successful. How to attract more visitors, put more heads in beds, fill those shoulder seasons and turn the ski resort into a four-season mountain resort.

Fortunately for you, I’m not about to go into detail on any of that.

During what we might call the pioneering years of Whistler—1970s to financial Armageddon in the early 1980s—the town drew an interesting mix of far-sighted business people, ski bums, hippie jocks, squatters, and nascent weekend warriors.

Those building lots you might see in real estate ads, currently asking $2 million and more, could be had for a few thousand dollars. Keen Vancouver skiers, trustifarians, upright citizens, people with better-off friends, and those who successfully dealt in contraband, managed to scrape together the money to buy one. Many built their own homes over the ensuing years. Many of those were prototype ski cabins, a smattering of which can still be glimpsed in almost every residential enclave in Whistler.

Quite a few of them had “caretaker” suites where locals lived. Having tenants provided comfort and security for Lower Mainlanders who were busy during the week working at jobs and dreaming of skiing on the weekend. Other suites were mortgage helpers for locals building their homes, the income from which was vital to keep all the balls in the air and not wind up turning the keys over to the bank that held their rapidly escalating mortgages.

None of them, in their wildest dreams, ever imagined they were building a home, a future retirement bonanza and a ticking time bomb that would radically change the course of the town when the future became the present.

More on that next week.