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How much is too much commercial space?

Developer Rod Nadeau gives rationale for Rainbow’s 18,000 square foot request

More than one councillor reiterated this week that they are not trying to throw roadblocks in the way of the Rainbow residential development.

But, they are still concerned about the amount of commercial space proposed at the core of this new neighbourhood, set to house more than 1,200 people, primarily full-time residents in employee housing.

"We want to have the right balance," Councillor Ken Melamed said this week. "We’re very cautious about creating destination shopping outside of the village."

But what that balance is from the municipality’s point of view and the developer’s point of view, may in fact be two completely different things. As it stands, the developer is looking to build roughly 18,000 square feet of commercial space.

Council, on the other hand, was thinking more along the lines of 5,000 to 8,000 square feet, said Melamed.

It begs the question: how much commercial space is suitable for the Rainbow development?

One of the partners in the Rainbow project, Rod Nadeau, said this week they are relying on Whistler 2020 (the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan), which is the municipality’s overarching guide for development, as a way to figure that out. The document, said Nadeau, clearly states the goal is to create small compact walking neighbourhoods with services available to local residents so they don’t have to jump into their cars every time they need something.

"We sort of took that to heart," said Nadeau. "If we’re going to listen to the 2020 document, which we’re trying to really do in this whole project, and build a neighbourhood that has the basic necessities, the things you do every day, within walking distance, we’re either going to do that successfully or we’re not going to do it. It makes no sense to put in something that’s going to fail."

By his estimation, 5,000 square feet of commercial is a set up for failure.

But while Whistler 2020 talks about the need for compact, Smart Growth neighbourhoods, the document also talks about keeping the village core vibrant as the primary centre in the resort community and the main hub of social activity.

Admittedly, it’s a conundrum.

"You’ve got here what appear to be two conflicting values," said Councillor Gord McKeever. "One is the desire for vibrancy and animation in the village and that interaction between locals and tourists. And on the other side of the coin you’ve got environmental objectives around not needlessly driving your car, reducing petro-chemical consumption, that sort of thing.

"It seems to be a head-to-head conflict between two values and where we want to go with that."

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a magic number for the right amount of commercial space at Rainbow, said Councillor Nick Davies.

"It’s how you apply the CSP to any planning issue and it’s always a balancing of values," he said. "It’s impossible to come up with a perfect solution that makes everybody happy."

The biggest component of the commercial space, as proposed by the developers, is a 7,500 square foot grocery square, roughly the same size as the Creekside Market. The rationale for that size, said Nadeau, is based on their research.

Not only does an independent consultant report state that a grocery store that size would be complementary rather than competitive in the Whistler marketplace, the president of Buy-Low Foods echoed those comments.

"We believe the supply of grocery needs has not yet met the current existing demand in the Whistler market," wrote Ric Laidlaw. "This does not factor in the anticipated growth of the Whistler visitor and resident populations, hence our interest in opening a facility in the Rainbow development."

Buy-Low owns Nesters Market.

"If you make the store too small, it’s a pop and chip and cigarette store and no one’s really going to use it," said Nadeau. "You need it to be big enough to offer the products or it won’t be successful."

The commercial space is also slated to house a 4,500 square foot pub/restaurant/cold beer and wine store, as well as a video store, café, barber shop, bank, post office, and some general office space.

"You need just enough to make it a gathering spot for your neighbourhood," said Nadeau.

The problem, he added, is that at the last meeting councillors did not have the benefit of all the background information and research done by the developers. They did not have the rationale behind the request for 18,000 square feet of commercial space.

It would be nice, said McKeever, to have the benefit of the results of the retail study which is just getting underway before making this decision. That study is to explore the local retail market from one end of Whistler to the other. It will not be ready in time for council’s decision on Rainbow.

Davies said they shouldn’t be focused so much on the number of square feet as opposed to the use of the space.

"We have to look at what it is we want to put there or what we would like to see there and how many square feet results from that," he said.

And Melamed, who sees the increased commercial space taking away from more employee housing units or green space, said one possible way to solve the issue is to give more commercial space in exchange for fewer market bed units.

"A possible solution to the space issue is for the developer to reduce their market lots accordingly, assuming we can all justify the need for additional commercial," he said.

Though he felt the last council meeting was a setback, Nadeau is determined to make his case for the commercial space.

"Unfortunately for us, and I think everybody in Whistler, the councillors got a tainted picture of our project by not having all the information well presented to them in a timely fashion," said Nadeau.

"What we need to do is we need to take a hard look at it from a professional planning point of view and put what’s appropriate there.

"And what is appropriate from a professional planning point of view and what is appropriate politically might be two different things and I would hope that proper planning prevails over politics."