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Brainstorming a vision for new neighbourhood

Community members look beyond 2010 in planning 200-acre athletes village site

Right now it’s the town dump. It’s hard to imagine what it could be five years from now, or even 15 years down the road.

But that was the task at hand for 35 community members during a two-day brainstorming session for what will become Whistler’s newest neighbourhood at the south end of town.

For 17 days in 2010 the site will be the home to 2,800 Olympic competitors as Whistler’s athletes village. Two months later the Vancouver Organizing Committee will hand it back to the municipality, and it will become an Olympic legacy of employee housing.

"The goal is to maximize the legacy of 2010," said Mike Vance, Whistler’s general manager of community initiatives.

The question is: what will that legacy look like?

"The exercise is to look at the neighbourhood and then we’ll work with VANOC to fit the athlete village into the neighbourhood. So it’s about 2020, not about 2010," added Vance.

One of the first orders of business during the design charette held May 19-20 was to find out about the physical and environmental constraints of the 200-acre site. The group heard from local consultants Cascade Environmental that there are no major environmental concerns, apart from the setbacks to the Cheakamus River and small pockets of wetlands in the area.

Most of the forest has been clear-cut and is regenerating, with a little mature timber in places.

"At the end of the day we found it to be a pretty good candidate site for development of some sort," said Dave Williamson, a principal of Cascade who attended part of the design meeting.

"There is an awful lot of wildlife down there and an awful lot of recreational use. That needs to be considered in the design and that was one of the things that was talked about in the charette."

Vance said there was agreement from the group to try to protect the river, the existing trail systems and the access to Garibaldi Park.

"(The goal is) to preserve those aspects that the community values now and build on them," he said.

One of the major concerns raised at the two-day meeting was the need to ensure this neighbourhood does not become a satellite community, despite being somewhat set apart from the existing community on the southern fringe of the municipality.

"It’s hard to think 15 years down the road to imagine what Whistler’s needs are and how this portion of the community would fit in," said Kirby Brown, director of employee experience at Whistler-Blackcomb and board member of the Whistler Housing Authority, who took part in the session.

"There’s generally consensus, I believe, about people not wanting to create a satellite community but wanting to make this an enhancement to Whistler overall."

At the same time the group did not foresee this neighbourhood as a place with major community facilities or amenities, rather a site with some small commercial opportunities such as a coffee shop and a convenience store.

"Across the board the groups agreed there’s a hierarchy of centres in the community, the village being the highest," said Vance. "And so any significant facilities should be focused towards the village."

To help the brainstorming session, the group of 35, most of whom were a part of the Whistler 2020 task forces, was broken down into smaller discussion groups. Because of the work done in Whistler 2020, the community’s new planning document, many in the group were familiar with the municipality’s vision of the future and how to get there in a successful and sustainable way.

Vance said it was interesting to see some major similarities with the outcomes of those breakout discussions.

"It just shows consistency in our community’s vision of what we’d look like if we were successful in 15 years," he said.

The neighbourhood will be made up of a mixture of employee housing, meaning it will be price-restricted for employees in Whistler. At the same time, much of the discussion centred on preventing residential sprawl and keeping the neighbourhood compact, following smart growth planning principles.

Brown said he struggles to reconcile those smart growth principles with providing residents a range of housing opportunities.

"My particular passion in this community has always been around resident housing and making sure that there’s not only a sufficient supply of it but also the right product out there for people," he said. "And in that sense I always get a bit conflicted with the smart growth principles which really push density… I know that people want sort of graduated living, from being happy in a small shared one or two bedroom to eventually having a family and wanting more space and some green space."

Without a doubt, said Brown, there will have to be compromises made on this site, whether it’s the amount of amenities there or the high density.

"Undoubtedly it won’t fit perfectly but I think it’ll still be, at the end of the day, a community we can be proud of," he said. "I really walked away from those two days feeling that."

The master planners for the site can now incorporate the direction given to them by these community members.

The master planners are Vancouver based Ekistics along with local firm Brent Harley and Associates. Their work is expected to be completed this year so site servicing can be done in 2006.

There will be time for public consultation throughout the master planning process. A public engagement session is scheduled for autumn this year.