While Whistler contemplates where we go from here in the post-Olympic world - education, arts and culture, Aboriginal tourism, destination markets, events, etc. - we continue to follow an old, familiar path. Development seems to be playing a bigger role at "buildout" than many of us expected.
Development has never been simple in Whistler. From the time the first parcels in the original village were offered for sale there have been restrictions and prescriptions on what developers could build. And for the most part Whistler has benefited by those rules, even if they have left some developers extremely frustrated.
The granddaddy of all development rules in Whistler has been the cap on bed units. Development is a little bit like a pot of water on a stove: you can put a lid on to try and contain it but sometimes the temperature gets too high and the water boils over. The cap on bed units has been Whistler's lid. It's been fairly effective, but the temperature is starting to rise.
The Alpha Creek Lands, owned by John Zen, are 31 hectares bordering Function Junction and Highway 99. A large wetland area is part of the site. Over the years, numerous proposals for developing the land have been floated. All have been rejected. There is a strong sentiment at municipal hall that the land should remain as it is. A previous council went so far as to give first three readings to a bylaw that would "downzone" the land and ensure there is no development. The bylaw has never been adopted.
But years of frustration have finally boiled over. Earlier this month a bulldozer and a faller were sent on to the property to start building a road for the four estate lots that current zoning allows. Doug Player, the man spearheading the project, wants to build a university on the site, rather than large houses, but he hasn't been able to persuade council or municipal staff of the virtues of the project. So he is trying to force their hand.
Leveraging development rights is as old a game as there is in Whistler. The municipality has played it effectively to build resident-restricted housing, finance parks and other infrastructure. Some property owners have also been good at it.
In the post-Olympic era, with virtually all bed units spoken for, it may have been assumed we had moved beyond the time when development rights could be leveraged. That's not the case. The transit facility showed how little influence Whistler could have if senior levels of government want to get involved. Planned development at Baxter Creek, the tennis resort, the entrance to Function Junction and even the commercial space at Rainbow may yet test Whistler's resolve, just as is being done now with the Alpha Creek lands.
While shaping development is challenging enough, with market fluctuations making something impossible one day and entirely doable another, the Alpha Creek lands are exposing another gap in Whistler's armour.
A university, or some sort of educational institution, has been talked about for years. Education may still form part of Whistler's post-Olympic plans, but that hasn't been decided yet. More importantly, who or how it will be decided is not clear. Most of the leading organizations have held retreats, gathered input and analyzed the directions they should take now that the big event is over. But bringing them all together and determining the community's position on education, to cite one example, has not gone beyond approval of the general concept.
Mayor Ken Melamed, for instance, feels education may be worth pursuing but it should be done utilizing the existing infrastructure, rather than developing a new purpose-built facility on environmentally sensitive land. That may be the perfect solution, but how are we going to get there?
Whistler is currently reviewing its official community plan, for the first time in 15 years. When that study is completed next year and paired with the Whistler 2020 document there may be some more defined parameters as far as education's role in Whistler. But there won't necessarily be anyone to champion it. It will be left to private parties, including developers, to determine if there is an opportunity for them within Whistler's guidelines.
Unless Whistler decides what it wants to pursue and appoints a person or organization to chase it, just as it did with the Olympics.