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Phoenix, take two

Housing project resurrected by independents; Buildings could be ready in December if money secured
Re-Rise The Phoenix project could rise from its own ashes after an independent developer offered a new vision for the troubled housing complex

The Phoenix project is back to give some welcomed relief to Whistler's severe housing crisis this winter. Sort of.

This week, an independent project manager and architect announced they have come up with their own version of the temporary employee housing project and hope to get four re-fabricated buildings ready for occupancy in December, if money is secured. There would be enough units to hold 300 workers.

The new project — named Phoenix Housing Mark II, even though it is not associated with the Phoenix Housing Corporation — received glowing reviews Monday from Whistler council, who unanimously voted to grant the group a development permit during their final meeting of the term.

"We are so excited to have this back on the table, and we really appreciate all your efforts in making this happen," said Councillor Tim Wake.

“I want to comment on how much we want this to happen, and I do not think you will see this group standing in the way.”

But while things look good, the project still needs to secure funding from a bank, as well as get local businesses back on board.

Both the project manager, John Jervis, and architect, Alvaro Ponce de Leon, said they hope to get the money from the Royal Bank of Canada. Lack of funds was the primary reason Phoenix I folded in September. At that time, the former supplier, SG Blocks, was short $3 million.

“We will never be completely confident, but we have been in conversations with the Royal Bank,” said Ponce de Leon, a non-registered architect, adding the group has already submitted their application to RBC.

“They are sponsoring the Games, and they think they can help us out with the project — not all of it of course — but they want to be part of the solution.”

However, Greg Newton from RBC said nothing is set in stone, and he has not received a financing package from the group.

“I am certainly familiar with the project... and was a huge supporter of it when Phoenix I was around,” said Newton.

“I do not know enough about these guys to make a credit decision, and the information I requested back on Oct. 21 has not been forthcoming.”

If successful, Phoenix II will consist of four buildings, with 15 units each. Each unit will have five single-occupancy bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a common room.

Bedrooms will likely rent for $700 a month, said Jervis, although nothing is confirmed.

The buildings will go on the same site as Phoenix I — where the Whistler Racquet Club and Wildwood Bar and Bistro are located — until July 1, 2010. They will be three storeys tall with steel siding and asphalt single roofs.

One big difference between the original project and Phoenix II is that the units will not be exclusive to employees of local businesses.

“We will probably just put it to the market in general, but preference will be given to local business people,” said Jervis.

Jervis said he plans to start contacting Whistler businesses shortly about signing up for the new beds, adding that he wants to keep the lease and deposits similar to Phoenix I.

And while many of the 45 businesses involved in the first Phoenix have found alternative accommodation for their employees this winter season, Jervis thinks interest is even higher than before.

“I am getting every indication from people that they are still interested,” said Jervis, who was contracted with the Phoenix Corporation in May. His ties with the Phoenix Corporation were cut in September when the original proposal fell through. Since then, he has been independently looking for another housing possibility.

But two of the biggest businesses involved in Phoenix I — Whistler-Blackcomb and the Gibbons Group — will not ask for as many beds in the revival project.

While it is not clear how many beds Whistler-Blackcomb would be interested in, Jervis said the number is down from the 40-some beds they reserved before. And the Gibbons Group has found alternative accommodation for their employees.

Business owner Chris Quinlan, who was a major driving force with Phoenix I, also said he is not participating in the revival project.

“I have secured a two-year lease on a house,” said Quinlan. “I have 12 beds there, versus seven with Phoenix.”

And when asked if he would sign up for beds in Phoenix II, Sandy Black, owner of Affinity Sports Rental, said he did not want to comment.

“I would have to look at the deal and understand what it looks like, what the time frame looks like, what the new rent looks like, how much money they want up front, and the commitment level,” said Black, who was involved in the first housing project.

“Obviously, like many people, I have gone out and figured the thing out for myself, so I do have housing for the Olympic period.”

He added: “I am still trying to understand what sales levels we can expect for the Olympic period to determine how many staff I am going to need.”

Despite these roadblocks, the Phoenix II group remains passionate about getting the re-fabricated homes up as soon as possible.

“We are hoping to solve this problem, and we are part of a larger group that is willing to make it happen,” said Ponce de Leon.

He stressed that a big difference between his group and SG Blocks is that they have an exist strategy. After July 2010, the modular homes will be sold to another city in British Columbia, likely Revelstoke or Fort St. John.

Also this time around, the housing will also be built entirely within Canada, since the units will be fabricated in Richmond and Squamish.

“This is a Canadian solution for a Canadian need. We do not have to outsource anything, and we will keep the jobs here,” he said.

Ponce de Leon had made his career building modular housing, and his resume includes building portable homes for the petroleum rig industry in the Columbian jungle. In 2006, he also tried to build a temporary lodge for Vancouver’s Olympic employees.