Opinion » Maxed Out

Cooking the golden goose: Part I

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RZ1144. Sounds so benign, doesn't it? It's one of many rezoning applications presented to and considered by the RMOW in 2017. In the case of RZ1144, though, benign is far from an accurate description. I'll forego my usual, wandering, several-hundred-word palaver of an introduction this week and cut right to the conclusion.

This rezoning application stinks. It would have to be a lot better than it is to rise to the level of a bad proposal. It needs to be put out of our misery before it gets somewhat watered down and approved because it has far-reaching implications for the kind of town Whistler becomes and the development that follows.

What it is

The land in question is a large, triangular-shaped property located at 2077 Garbaldi Way in Nordic, at the end of Garibaldi Way. It is currently zoned RSE1 — single-family, residential estate one — which would allow the owner, 1116130 BC Ltd, which for the sake of convenience I'll just refer to as Triple-One henceforth, to build a single home of 465 square metres, or 5,000 square feet.

As with any lot someone desired to build a 5,000-square-foot home on, the developer kindly removed all living vegetation, every tree, every bush, everything, and graded it more or less level. In case you were wondering, I am being facetious. People who want to pay millions for an estate home in Whistler usually take great pains to keep it surrounded by the very large trees that make this town seem like so much attractive rainforest. But perhaps Triple-One understood the threat of wildfire and hoped the scorched-earth effect would be seen as a nod to safety. I'm speculating.

Or maybe Triple-One had something bigger in mind for this site.

At any rate, the surrounding neighbourhood is filled with relatively modest homes. Those homes, for the most part, are filled with relatively modest owners who are relatively pissed off at this proposal since it is so far out of scale with what they'd always considered their residential neighbourhood. While I'm usually first to eschew blatant nimbyism, I have to concede the point to them in this case. This development has no place in this neighbourhood, a conclusion reached by the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) 15 years ago when it did a thorough inventory of potential infill sites around town and found this site wanting.

What it could be

Leveraging the recent recommendations of the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing and the even more recent Guidelines for Evaluating Private Sector Rezoning Proposals for Employee Housing approved by council at its Dec. 5, 2017 meeting, Triple-One is requesting rezoning to allow it to build three buildings containing a total of 74 employee-restricted apartments. Perhaps that's why the parcel was denuded and bulldozed. Perhaps not.

The rental units would be comprised of 23 one-bedroom apartments, each 61 metres square of roughly 658 square feet, 33 one-bedroom plus den apartments, each 72 square metres or 775 square feet, and 18 two-bedroom apartments of 77 square metres or 825 square feet. Bear with the numbers; they're important and, frankly, it's only going to get worse, mathematically speaking.

The current zoning included six bed units. I'm not going to try to explain what a bed unit is or how the appropriate number of them are derived since to do so would stretch the limits of both yours and my own grasp of logic, but it is an important metric in Tiny Town for anyone trying to develop residential housing. I'm not sure why a 5,000-square-foot house only has six bed units when each of the bedrooms in this proposal contain 2.4 but it's really not important.

What is important, as pointed out by Pique editor Clare Ogilvie last week, is the 222 bed units this project would require constitute a gift — let's not call it a subsidy — from the RMOW of, let's see, 222-6=216 bed units. No one knows what bed units are worth but the RMOW is the only entity that can create them, which makes them even more incorporeal than Bitcoins, and the last time a number was tossed around, the value assigned was $90,000 each. Which, as Clare wrote, means the RMOW would have to gift Triple-One bed units worth almost $19.5 million.

Ironically, the $90,000 figure was used in turning down the rezoning proposed for Whistler U on the Zen lands a few years back. While that was a good decision, I'm finding myself thinking I'd rather have Whistler U than this project... and I argued strenuously against it at the time.

What's wrong with that?

Employee housing is a good thing. I live in WHA housing. At the risk of putting the WHA's future in jeopardy, I'll go so far as to say if I wasn't in WHA housing I probably wouldn't still be living in Whistler. But this isn't a WHA project. This is a private development. While there's nothing wrong with that, the devil, like God, is in the details. And the details on this project raise more questions than the answers Triple-One or the RMOW Planning Department have provided. That's probably because the answers wouldn't give the kind of comfort level necessary for council to approve this project.

Among the questions raised are, in no particular order, affordability, demand, moral hazard, the impact on market rents and future projects, the role, if any, RMOW should play enriching private developers and, ultimately, whether the RMOW has given up on its role, through WHA, of providing affordable, resident-restricted housing for employees of Whistler.

That's a lot of questions. And that explains why this is only Part I. Given the slapdash consideration this proposal was given at the Dec. 19 council meeting, I plan to delve more deeply into these questions. Fortunately, owing to the nature of this proposal, the RMOW is forced to hold public consultations before opening the vaults and approving it. I can afford to spend a couple of weeks shining light on this murky proposal.

But if you're curious, the brief answer to some of these questions is, the project isn't affordable. There is questionable demand, certainly not anything that meets council's avowed promise to make "evidence-based" decisions. Making the apartments envisioned by this proposal available to local businesses to rent, as opposed to individuals on or off the WHA waitlist, lays the groundwork for multiple moral hazards. The sky-high rents proposed will move market rents higher. And I'm still scratching my head wondering whether this council has given up on creating affordable, employee-restricted housing.

I'll lay out my analysis supporting those conclusions next week.

Oooo, something to look forward to.

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