Whistler’s future at the end of Rainbow

There is no shortage of issues facing Whistler and its elected leaders as the clock winds down and the pressure builds toward Nov. 19. And behind each issue there seems to be another interest group or conspiracy theory popping up these days. The economy, the arena, the energy plan, several major development projects – they’re all front and centre right now, and each has its own cadre of advocates, opponents and theorists.

Among the major issues on the agenda this fall is the Rainbow lands housing project. As it slowly grinds its way through the approval process opposition has been mounting. Questions about various aspects of the project seem designed to erode individual pillars of support.

There are some legitimate questions, about the municipality’s financial commitment, the history of the property and what was or wasn’t permitted, and the size and form of the development. There is no fault in asking honest questions; they should lead to a better project, which should be to Whistler’s benefit. But any suggestions that the whole thing should be scrapped or put on the shelf until some future date ignores previous priorities identified and decisions made by this community – not to mention the overarching problem facing Whistler in 2005: the local economy.

If you go back to February of 2003 you may recall that this council said, shortly after being sworn in, that affordability and affordable housing were urgent priorities. The current council also promised to deliver employee housing units during this term in office. Last year it became obvious that Whistler was behind on this schedule, but to get something going the municipality hired Steve Bayly to expedite a major resident-restricted housing development. In about two months, November and December, he put together the fundamentals of the Rainbow lands project: 70 single family units, about 40 duplexes, 50 multi-family units, and 40 seniors units on a 45-acre site. All resident restricted. Built in phases over the next several years, it is enough resident housing to address much of Whistler’s needs to 2010.

As a long-term Whistler resident, a builder and the first general manager of the Whistler Housing Authority, Bayly was uniquely qualified to deliver. He knew the history, knew the players, knew the politics and had the building background to understand what would and wouldn’t work.

He also had the benefit of a couple of earlier studies. One was the municipality’s survey of residents to determine where they wanted future housing. The answer was clear: Whistler didn’t want a new development in the Callaghan, it wanted infill housing.

The second piece of work that was of some benefit was done by VANOC. The Olympic organizers studied the Rainbow lands as a possible site for the athletes village. While the property met a number of requirements it was finally rejected by VANOC, largely for security reasons, although it’s fair to say the property owners weren’t especially interested in the athletes village either.

The Rainbow lands wasn’t the only piece of property Bayly looked at, but after a basic examination of the technical merits, the property owners’ interests and the political interest in various sites, Rainbow was proposed.

Earlier this year a memorandum of understanding between the municipality and the property owners was signed, an unusual step but one taken so that each side had an understanding of what was expected prior to the final details being hashed out.

The demand for the types of housing the Rainbow project will provide has never been in doubt. When Rainbow was announced in January the wait list for resident restricted housing was about 450. Earlier this summer it topped 500. That’s 500 people or families, pre-approved for mortgages, who want to own their own home in the town where they live and work.

There are historical issues with the Rainbow property that need to be addressed, but they should not delay this project. There are also details to be finalized, such as where the bed units for the 51 market housing units will come from and the size of the commercial component. They can be worked out as the final shape and form of the development is approved.

What Whistler can’t afford is to delay this project. A stable employee base, with roots in the community, is one of the keys to getting the local economy back on its feet again.

A few years ago the owners of the Rainbow property proposed a development not too unlike what is now being reviewed. It was rejected at that time because Whistler was working its way through the comprehensive sustainability plan. That plan is now sufficiently complete – and supportive of the Rainbow concept – for all of Whistler to commit to this project.


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