Opinion » Editorial


It takes time to raise a village



In a super-heated economy, where construction costs have been compounding monthly, due to shortages of labour and demand for materials, and where the Lower Mainland construction industry puts out monthly bulletins explaining the scope of the construction boom, you would think there might be some anxiety over the fact that construction has yet to start on the Olympic athletes village in Whistler. Mid-May was the deadline Mayor Ken Melamed set for starting construction, but the business plan for the project still isn’t approved.

The suggestion – from Whistler, from Victoria and from VANOC – is that the business plan will be done in the next 30 days and construction could start by June 1. Meanwhile, rather than move the project along VANOC is revising the construction schedule.

It’s a curious way to deal with a problem that no one seems very interested in discussing. But then, the Whistler athletes village is a curious part of the Olympic development program; curious in the neither-fish-nor-fowl kind of way.

While the Vancouver athletes village is specifically mentioned in the multi-party agreement signed by the 2010 Bid Corp., the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and the governments of Canada, B.C., Vancouver and Whistler prior to the awarding of the Games, the Whistler athletes village is not. The agreement states that the City of Vancouver must build its athletes village at its cost (plus $30 million from VANOC) and provide use of the village rent-free during the Games. The only mention of the Whistler athletes village in the agreement is that Whistler will amend its official community plan to permit the development of the village. That amendment currently sits at second reading. A public hearing won’t be held until the business plan is finished.

Vancouver’s athletes village is being built on land the city owns. Whistler’s athletes village is to be built on part of the 300-acre land bank that Victoria agreed to provide Whistler. The land bank was one of those legacies Whistler was to get from Victoria whether the Olympic bid was successful or not. We were told the legacies also included boundary expansion and financial tools.

The program for development of the Vancouver athletes village also differs from the way Whistler is going about developing its village. Vancouver asked for bids from developers, with the requirement that only a percentage of the project be "affordable" housing after the Games. Most of the development will become market housing after 2010.

In Whistler, a corporation was established – at arm’s length from the municipality – to oversee development of the athletes village, similar to the way the original Whistler Village was developed. Contractors will be asked to bid for development rights but the original intent was that 100 per cent of the athletes village would become affordable resident housing after the Games. The problem is that even with land provided by the province and about $26 million from VANOC, developers can’t afford to build an athletes village at prices that will allow the development to become affordable housing after 2010.

Allowing some market housing in the athletes village would provide the cushion needed to make the project financially feasible. This, apparently, is the holdup in the athletes village business plan: how much market housing should be allowed. Victoria and Whistler seem to have different ideas.

But Colin Hansen, the provincial minister responsible for the Games, hinted this week that the holdup may be the federal government. How the federal government is involved in either athletes village is not clear. The feds are taking their time reviewing the numbers before committing the additional $55 million VANOC requested from each of Victoria and Ottawa but the athletes villages seem to be development deals involving VANOC, the province and the respective towns.

Another factor that may be complicating development of the Whistler athletes village is the involvement of the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations. Just as they did for Whistler, the provincial government promised the Squamish and Lil’wat a 300-acre land bank. But unlike Whistler’s land bank, which is supposed to be limited to resident housing, the province did not put any restrictions on the First Nations’ land bank. A commercial component in the athletes village development, for instance, may have to be on First Nations land.

And finally there is the Whistler Legacies Society that is going to "own, manage or operate" the Nordic centre, bobsleigh track and athletes centre after the Games. The athletes centre is a training facility within the athletes village. The Whistler Legacies Society is supposed to include representatives from Whistler, Victoria, the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations.

With so many parties involved, and with several "promises" and little public documentation describing roles and responsibilities, it is perhaps not surprising that the athletes village is taking so long to get off the ground.

But it is also not acceptable. There is only a six-month construction season in Whistler. If this is a project worth doing, the decision-makers should get together and hammer it out, rather than leaving it to flounder like a drowning man.