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Maxed Out: There’s no interest like self-interest

“A new chapter was written in the sweet, short life of Whistler’s cultural mythology Monday night.
An artist's rendering of a proposed housing development in Whistler's White Gold neighbourhood.

“A new chapter was written in the sweet, short life of Whistler’s cultural mythology Monday night. In the genteel confines of the Chateau Whistler, residents of Alpine Meadows girded their loins and proved beyond a reasonable doubt the denizens of Blueberry and White Gold have nothing on them when it comes to boorishness, intolerance, elitism and outright loathing for the members of this community who do not share their enclave of economic privilege.”


I wrote those words in March 1998, the morning after an ugly public meeting held to discuss the 19 Mile Creek employee housing project. Council of the day had given it first and second reading, and this was the public’s chance to comment.

Opposition to the development was spearheaded by the Alta Lake Ratepayers Association and driven largely by homeowners in Alpine who preferred to see the scrub brush dotting the no-longer-used gravel pit rather than allow undesirables a home. It was ugly.

And I am reminded of it again and again when comfortable homeowners stand in opposition to new developments designed to at least partially house employees in the valley.

Really, people—grow up!

In 1998, council rallied, and with minor modifications, approved the development. They were vilified by some members of the community but stood their ground. And then a funny thing happened. It took a couple of years, but some of the more outspoken opponents, some who owned homes just up the hill from 19 Mile, apologized for their opposition. They came to realize the development was a good thing, came to see it housing a significant number of the people who make this town work, who contribute to its success, who were finally able to start families because they at last had a secure place to live.

Ironically, many of those who opposed the development sounded exactly like those who spoke against Vidorra Developments’ most recent, many-times-altered proposal for the corner of Nancy Greene Drive and Highway 99, the empty eyesore across from Nesters.

Now, as then, the opposition always seems to start with, “I’m in favour of employee housing... BUT!”

And stripped of the self-serving bull excrement, it always distils down to, “Not in my backyard.”

It’ll ruin our property values. It’s too big. There are better places—nowhere near me—to build it. It doesn’t fit the neighbourhood.

Oh so dreary. But as they say, there’s no interest like self-interest.

Before going on, I’d like to thank all the silent voices of those living in Fitzsimmons Walk. I’m hoping your silence is muted support as opposed to total indifference. Or perhaps you remember the opposition to building Fitzsimmons Walk itself. Groundhog Day?

The original proposal five long years ago was for a building with 65 units, all employee rental housing. It was forward-thinking in that it provided less than mandated parking and included on-site car sharing, something that just may have worked given its proximity to, well, everything.

But there was no sense of adventure in the planning department. Rules were rules. And don’t preach to me about Whistler’s supposed Big Moves when it came to environmental actions.

Over the course of five years, the project has suffered death by a thousand cuts. In the meantime, the costs of everything needed to build housing have exploded. The current 98-pound weakling proposal—just 36 units—is no longer affordable employee housing: only 50 per cent will rent for below-market rates.

In the meantime, Whistler is facing unprecedented demand for employee housing, a constant loss of market rentals as owners decide they no longer want to put up with the hassles of renting suites, a marked increase in employees living “rough,” and a never-ending gap between the number of employees local businesses need to operate at full capacity and the number available.

But heck, not in my backyard, thank you.

Driving past the proposed site, I’m unclear what exactly the harpies at Fitz Walk are concerned with. It certainly can’t be the loss of the high-quality view of a barren lot with cars parked on it, presumably employees from the businesses across the highway. It’s not the stellar views to the southwest—there are none. And I presume they’re not worried about having a building to buffer the constant road noise from the highway.

So here’s the rub. For the past several decades, Whistler has been hell bent on growing itself into a four-season resort. It has succeeded beyond most peoples’ wildest expectations. But little thought was given to the knock-on issues that success would bring, not the least of which is a lack of affordable housing for the workers needed to keep the juggernaut running.

Enter the Mayor’s Task Force on Resident Housing. Among its recommendations was a plan to look to private developers to build up to 550 bed units of employee housing on private land, subsequently blunted to 500 bed units by 2023. That was in 2017. To date, zero have been built; 103 housing units containing a couple of hundred bed units have had their rezoning approved, 66 of which are accounted for by Whistler Blackcomb’s (WB) approved employee housing building on Glacier Drive.

With the exception of WB’s building, all proposals have languished for nearly as long as this one. All have become smaller and way more expensive to build. Many have had to tinker with the ratio of market versus employee units. By any reasonable definition, this element of the Task Force’s recommendations has not been a roaring success.

Whistler dithers its way toward... what?

The RMOW hasn’t stopped issuing business licences. There seems to be continuing appetite to open new businesses, expand old businesses and grow. Business owners say, on the one hand, “look at the jobs I’m creating,” while on the other bemoaning their inability to find employees to take those jobs.

There are really only two choices. Build more employee housing or let the market right-size the town for us. While I’m probably in support of a smaller town, we seem to have a clear inability to balance both while listening to the whining from neighbours every time there’s a proposal on the table.

In 1998, council dug in their heels and stood firm on 19 Mile Creek. Many of them still feel the sting from the vitriol hurled at them by cosseted members of the comfortably housed. This project is already a shadow of what should have been built on the site. It’s a miracle anything is being seriously proposed. This council would do well to find that resolve so apparent 24 years ago and just get the hell on with it

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