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Opinion: Checking in on Cheakamus Phase 2

Cheakamus Phase 2 April 2022
Whistler 2020 Development Corp. officials gave Pique staff a tour of Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2 on April 21.

With a little more than six months until the end of council’s term, one of its key initiatives continues to make steady progress in Cheakamus Crossing.

And just beyond the gates at the end of Mount Fee Road, the future of employee-restricted housing in Whistler is beginning to take shape.

Construction is well underway on two new Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) apartment buildings that will soon be home to some patient Whistlerites, while site work for future builds is also steadily progressing.

Of the buildings now under construction, the first, consisting of 46 (mostly one and two-bedroom) units, is already totally sold out, says Eric Martin, chair of the Whistler 2020 Development Corp. (WDC), a subsidiary of the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

“We’ll probably get occupancy by the end of August and then move-in in September, so that’s great,” Martin says, adding that the WDC will go back to the WHA’s waitlist for its next building, 54 units going up right next door, in the coming months as well.

It’s been interesting to watch how the new builds have impacted the WHA’s purchase waitlist, which had more than 800 names on it as of late last year, Martin says.

“A lot of people that were lower down on the waitlist never thought they’d get the opportunity, but a lot of people passed,” he says.

“For example, there are only four three-bedroom units in [this building], so we started with those units, and they went quickly. And some people thought, ‘OK, well I didn’t get a three, maybe I’ll look at a nice corner two, which are bigger, or maybe I’ll wait for the four threes in the second building.”

Standing in one of the aforementioned “corner twos” during a tour of the new builds on April 21, it’s easy to see why they were in high demand—a high, angled ceiling, great sun exposure and incredible views make the units instantly appealing.

With open houses planned for next month, those who have signed on for the units won’t have to wait long to see for themselves.

The 100 new for-purchase units between the two buildings are long overdue, as new WHA product brought online in recent years has been entirely focused on rental—but that doesn’t mean more rental isn’t on the way.

“We’re actively designing and working away on the next two projects, because it takes a good year in advance to get everything set up,” says Whistler Councillor and WDC board member Duane Jackson.

“The next two [buildings] are rentals, and then the next one, which we’ve also cleared, is potentially another for-sale project, and [we’ll take] what we learn from this and the next building, and go back and revisit the waitlist.”

The April 21 site tour represented Pique’s third time touring the new employee-restricted housing development since March 2021, which at build-out will add about 295 units of employee housing to the resort’s stock (not including 23 market lots).

The project has made steady progress since that first tour, in spite of some serious challenges around things like escalating costs, a lack of workers and a major backlog in municipal permitting.

“I’ve been building in Whistler for 30 odd years, and we used to be able to get a permit in three to four weeks, and now it takes time,” says the project’s VP of construction Rob Laslett. “Pretty much what they’re telling me is it’s a 20-week lead time.”

Despite the challenges, the project remains “on time and on budget,” Martin says, and overall the WDC’s finances are in good shape. A $14-million loan from RBC used to develop the 23 market “River Run” lots is now paid out (by way of the sales of those lots). A second $14-million loan to complete the first apartment building will be paid from the sale of units in the building, Martin says.

Further, a $10-million line of credit extended to WDC by the RMOW will be repaid in the first part of 2023, and WDC will be in a position to repay its historical debt of about $9.5 million “by year end,” Martin adds.

As with any construction project, timing is crucial—a mantra Martin has espoused throughout the construction of Cheakamus Phase 2 (and likely long before that as well).

It’s important to have shovel-ready sites that can be acted on when the time is right, Martin says.

“This is the message I keep pushing to council: We gotta push. Timing is huge—look at what happened to interest rates,” he says.

“So the faster you can go, the more efficient you can be, the better support you get, you can actually make a difference.”

Therein lies the project’s biggest advantage—full buy-in from everyone involved, whether it be at the council table or municipal hall.

“We’ve actually been able to move; we really haven’t been too constrained, particularly on a lot of the site work, we had great support from engineering and planning through zoning,” Jackson says.

“Really this project has worked out better than a lot of people understood, because we had so much feedback early on.”

Cheakamus Crossing Phase 2 alone won’t solve the resort’s housing crisis (if such a solution even exists), but it represents a commendable legacy for Whistler’s current council, and one achieved under extremely challenging circumstances.

As council’s term comes to an end, the ultimate future build-out of Cheakamus Crossing is yet to be determined—the next phases of the project will be decided on by Whistler’s next mayor and council after they’re sworn in this fall. 

Building more housing is important, but we also need creative solutions to ensure the stock we already have is used to its highest potential; that suites in homes are rented out; and that rents stay reasonable.

So as municipal election day draws nearer, and as candidates begin to declare, I’ll be paying close attention to what our next slate of hopeful elected officials has to say about housing—bonus points for those who bring fresh ideas to the table, fully grounded in reality with a reasonable path to accomplishing them; a bag of mouldy Pemby potatoes for everyone spouting the same empty clichés.