A little bit pregnant and in trouble

Nearly 40 years ago, when the lakes in the Whistler valley were threatened by the septic fields of hundreds of weekend cabins, Dave Barrett's NDP government declared a moratorium on commercial development while it analyzed Whistler's situation. It doesn't rival Churchill's "We shall defend our island" speech as an inspiring moment in history but the basic rule of plumbing - it flows downhill - nevertheless was a catalyst for Whistler today.

Several people who held sizeable chunks of land were outraged by the moratorium. Their consternation grew when the province concluded its review and announced it would incorporate Whistler with the stated intent of seeing the municipality become an international resort. One of the building blocks (after developing a sewer system) was to be the development of a central village, a commercial core that would be the hub of the proposed resort.

Several of the private property owners put forward proposals to have the village built on their land. But after much deliberation it was determined the village should be centrally located, between the existing Whistler Mountain and the proposed Blackcomb ski area. The province provided the Crown land to make it happen, which outraged the private developers again.

But they got over it. And putting the village in a central location has worked, for nearly everyone.

That little bit of history is relevant to the rezoning the new owners of the commercial property at Rainbow are seeking. After winning approval for a larger gas station and convenience store, Rainbow Canuck Properties Ltd. is now asking to increase the size of a second commercial development at Rainbow. Parcel Lot 9 is zoned for 1,900 square metres of "local commercial service" and "local personal service," which may mean a grocery store, pharmacy, restaurant, pub, café, liquor store, florist, fitness studio and a bank.

A municipal staff report says the developer's "...intention is to build a mixed-use neighbourhood centre that includes resident restricted apartment units and a range of retail outlets to meet the daily needs of Rainbow residents, as well as people living in Emerald Estates and Alpine Meadows. This concept is consistent with early and ongoing objectives for the neighbourhood, which is intended to be a complete community that serves local traffic but does not detract from the vibrancy of Whistler Village or Creekside by enticing customers who would otherwise patronize those existing commercial areas."

But 1,900 square metres is apparently not enough. Rainbow Canuck Properties Ltd. is seeking 2,700 square metres of commercial space. The rationale is that grocers have told the owner they need 1,800 square metres for a grocery store/pharmacy. Any smaller just isn't viable. That leaves only 100 square metres for the restaurant, pub, café, liquor store, florist, fitness studio and bank needed to make Rainbow "a complete neighbourhood."

The Rainbow project has been plagued from the beginning by fits and false starts. Some of that may be attributable to resistance from the municipality; some of it probably stems from the original developers pushing the RMOW.

Some of it has to do with timing. When the council of the day approved the project in 2005 they were motivated by the prospect of getting some resident-restricted housing built before the Olympics (sigh). To help move the project along the municipality decided to get a little bit pregnant; it allowed the developers commercial space outside the acknowledged (Whistler2020) commercial hub, the village.

The concept of neighbourhood service nodes sounds great. Being able to get a loaf of bread, a litre of milk or a bottle of wine in your neighbourhood, and perhaps doing it on foot or bicycle rather than in a car, is appealing. It should take cars off the highway, reduce car traffic generally, help the environment and perhaps even foster a sense of neighbourhood.

But Whistler has to maintain the 40-year-old tenet that the village is the focal point of the resort community. Erosion of that tenet affects the whole resort.

At what point a mixed-use neighbourhood centre starts to take away from the vibrancy of the village is hard to predict. But maintaining the village's status should be council's primary concern. Ensuring the commercial viability of the neighbourhood is secondary.

The temptation is to say to Rainbow Canuck Properties Ltd., you bought the property this year knowing what the zoning allowed and what it didn't allow. If it doesn't work for you or one of your tenants, too bad.

But if the expansion is not approved what Whistler may end up with is another grocery store comparable in size to Nesters or Creekside Market. An anchor tenant with no ancillary commercial services, and some free parking. That isn't what was envisioned in 2005 or in 1975.




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