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A town in transition

Growing up in Toronto, perpetually stuck in construction-related traffic jams, my dad always broke out the same joke — “it’ll be a great city, if they ever get it finished.

Growing up in Toronto, perpetually stuck in construction-related traffic jams, my dad always broke out the same joke — “it’ll be a great city, if they ever get it finished.”

When I was too young to recognize sarcasm, I actually believed that dad was speaking truthfully and that it was possible to finish Toronto; that somebody had a master blueprint somewhere and ticked off the projects one after another. Some day the pavers would lay the last inch of asphalt, and the work crews would hand in their hard hats and orange vests and disappear forever.

I liked the idea then, and I like it even more now. If you think about it, that’s the very definition of sustainability — you set your limits and you live within them. That means there should be a set number of people, living in a set number of houses, working a set number of jobs, and leaving what’s left of the environment alone. No more draining wetlands or cutting down trees to build subdivisions.

The problem is that our economy is hardwired to growth, and a lot of our growth is the result of a growing population and our constant need to build new homes, sell new cars, and provide more products and services.

Whistler believes that it can buck this economic reality, and back in the 1970s the municipality created a bed cap — a formula that determined the maximum number of people Whistler could house. The bed cap formula has been adjusted a few times and changed to exempt employee restricted units, but Whistler at least remains committed to the concept.

We’re now closing in on the cap. By the time the Olympics and Paralympics have come and gone, all but a few hundred bed units will be accounted for.

At the same time, Whistler’s infrastructure is nearing completion.

Our new municipal library opens on Jan. 26, after giving residents a sneak preview this past Sunday at Books on the Move. Members of the community were given a chance to take a book from the old library, walk it over the new facility and place it on the shelf. The new library is still very much under construction, and lines of marking tape prevented more than 200 participants from wandering around, but the general sentiment from the people I talked to was that it was about time that Whistler had a proper library instead of a modified portable. There were concerns about the costs nearly doubling in two years, but most people were accepting — what’s done is done, and no amount of complaining is going to get that money back. It’s still a great and important building.

The library is just one piece of the puzzle. There are still a few connector roads to build and a few new sections of Valley Trail. Our last two major subdivisions, Rainbow and the Whistler Athlete’s Village, are at various stages of development, and there is some infill development pending for existing neighbourhoods. Most of the land in Function Junction is almost fully developed at this point, but there are a handful of open lots left.

Municipal Hall is in need of renovations and possibly an expansion. The community also needs another ice sheet, and before that another gas station.

And then there’s the Lot 1/9 medal plaza currently in production. At minimum, the community will get an open green space to host concerts and cultural events in the future, but there is also a possibility we’ll see some kind of outdoor ice rink on the land, and up to three buildings reserved for a variety of cultural and institutional uses.

When all of this is completed, though, will Whistler be finished?

Not quite. Where is the museum going to go? Or the proposed Centre for Sustainability? What will happen to the Alpha Creek lands?

And when do we start rebuilding, tearing older homes and hotels down to put new ones up? Will we build more rental and employee restricted housing in the valley, exempt from the bed cap, and finally meet the needs of our transient workforce and local businesses?

Given the fact that we’re just one voice on the SLRD board, how exactly can Whistler manage development on its fringes? That area includes the Callaghan Valley where developers are planning everything from golf courses to 55,000 square foot heli-ski lodges. Developments are also being eyed for the Soo Valley, and there’s a lot of real estate between Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton that could be brought into play.

Is Whistler’s bed cap driving these just-out-of-boundary developments? And if so, can it really be said that Whistler has stopped growing?

The regional growth strategy, which is being prepared by the SLRD, may be our best chance at reaching some kind of sustainable plateau for development in Sea to Sky. However, for the most part that strategy accepts that population in Sea to Sky is going to effectively double over the next 30 years, and looks at ways to manage that growth.

The bottom line is that when Whistler reaches buildout, don’t expect the construction to suddenly stop. We’ll never be finished.