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2020 Development Corp. facing conundrum

Resident housing at athletes village site proving to be expensive

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Rising construction costs, increased demands from VANOC and a challenging site are forcing the municipality to think hard about the cost of building resident housing in the athletes village.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee has committed $26 million to the project and with that money the municipality will most likely be able to service the site and build a temporary athletes village, but not much more.

The idea was always to build resident housing on the serviced land after the Games and recoup the money through the sale of the units.

But it’s so expensive to build in Whistler that the municipality may not be able to build all the units at the established benchmark price for employee housing. There is now a possibility of lifting the price restrictions on some of the resident housing in order to build it.

"Whistler’s incredibly expensive," said Eric Martin, chair of the Whistler 2020 Development Corp. "The pure construction costs for Whistler are so much higher than Vancouver or either Squamish and Pemberton just for the snow loads and so on. It’s a real liability for anyone building there because construction costs are so high."

In today’s dollars, resident housing in Whistler is expected to be built for $175/square foot, a price established by the WHA. That does not include servicing costs.

Martin estimates the athletes village resident housing, including servicing costs, will be closer to $240/square foot. That figure includes inflation and construction cost increases over the next five years.

"I can’t see it all being done by prices that are established by the Whistler Housing Authority," Martin told council on Monday night. "I can see a range of pricing."

If some of the housing is offered at a higher price, it could help subsidize some of the cheaper units.

Typically there are price restrictions on any new resident housing projects in Whistler. If those restrictions are lifted in the athletes village, there can be a range of prices with the only requirement being that the owners are residents or employees of Whistler.

The problem is how much resident housing Whistler will need after the Games and how much residents will be able to afford if there are no price restrictions.

"The problem of course is looking ahead," said Martin. "What will it (the demand) be five years from now? That’s a real challenge.

"If we could afford to get it built and afford to deliver it to local residents and employees at significantly less than market, I think it would be a win-win."

The development corporation was established by the municipality in January and charged with planning, financing and developing the athletes village in the Lower Cheakamus, opposite Function Junction.

Equally important, the development corporation is responsible for the development of the legacy neighbourhood after the Olympics.

At Monday’s meeting Councillors Gordon McKeever and Ken Melamed both expressed an unwillingness to build any market housing on the site in order to help pay for the resident housing.

"It’s really important for me… that we can deliver this without market housing," said McKeever.

Any market housing in the Lower Cheakamus would be above Whistler’s cap on development.

Melamed also said they may have to get tough with VANOC. He admitted that in hindsight the municipality should have considered construction escalation costs when drawing up the agreements with VANOC.

The province is insisting on sticking to the 2002 dollars promised. At the same time, the number of athletes to be housed in the village has gone up to 3,000 from roughly 2,500, without any corresponding increase in funding. And VANOC has added the requirement for a second bridge over the Cheakamus River to get to the village.

"We may have to get a little bit tough with them (the province)," said Melamed. "They keep trying to dip into the same well."

Martin said the development corporation would like to present council and the community with options. While one option is the range of prices for the resident housing, another option could be building temporary structures on site. In that scenario, all the land would be serviced and ready to be developed at a later date.

Martin said: "That wouldn’t be the worst case thing in the world either because you’d have zoned land, owned by the municipality, basically 300 acres, part of which was fully serviced."

There are tight timelines for this project. The plan is expected to be finalized by the end of this year and adopted in the first quarter of 2006.

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