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editorial_631

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Between the Gothic arch and the trophy home Buying or building a single family home in Whistler has, for some time, been a case of if you have to ask how much you probably can’t afford it. The market in the last six-10 months has shown there is a demand for large, estate homes. These "trophy homes" start at more than $1 million, often feature outstanding workmanship by some of the skilled craftsman in the region, and are generally sold to absentee owners who may use them a few weeks of the year. The market for these homes has developed because of Whistler’s success as a resort. And following the most recent record-breaking winter season, the demand is higher than ever. Accordingly, developers are ready to serve this market. Intrawest has proposed The Peaks, an exclusive 60-unit subdivision above Whistler Creek. BC Rail’s proposal for 4-5 acre estate lots on the west side of Alta Lake was recently endorsed in principle by council. In contrast to the trophy homes, virtually the only other new residential real estate development in the last couple of years has been for "affordable" employee housing. In between the trophy houses and the employee housing are the "original" single family houses in subdivisions such as Alta Vista, Alpine Meadows, Emerald Estates and White Gold. Many of those houses were built in the ’60s and early ’70s, when the owners were looking for a simple place to stay on winter weekends away from the city. A-frames, Gothic arches, kit cabins — the buildings themselves have little monetary value today, but the land they sit on has skyrocketed in value. It is, of course, not just Whistler’s success as a resort, but the fact that there is a cap on development which makes these single family lots so valuable. (Exactly what that cap is, how accurate the bed unit count is and how much interest there is in sticking to the cap or creating a new cap is a whole other discussion.) The fact is that as Whistler gets closer to buildout, these old original houses are going to increase in value. They will be torn down and new houses built. Because of the value of the land — $300,000 is a starting point for a lot in Whistler these days — it doesn’t make financial sense to build anything less than a house that would sell, with lot, for at least $600,000. That’s not affordable housing by anyone’s standards, but that’s what the market dictates. The thing is, some families can still, with lot of hard work and planning, buy into the Whistler Dream of a single family house while there is an old cabin on the lot. But they are going to be facing more and more competition for those lots. Whistler council is aware there are going to be more "tear downs" in the future and is considering design guidelines for rebuilding on these lots. In Vancouver, such design guidelines have been implemented by rezoning entire neighbourhoods. There are at least two dangers here. One is that such design guidelines may increase the cost of rebuilding in the old subdivisions. so that single family homes are well and truly beyond the reach of Whistler’s next generation of "middle class" families. The other, admittedly smaller, danger is in creating homogenous housing through design guidelines. The municipality went too far in that direction with guidelines for signs in the village; with a building code in place why should there be another set of rules to determine what a house should or should not look like? Perhaps the municipality would be better served if it took steps to ensure that tear downs don’t become trophy homes — prohibiting two adjacent lots from being merged into one large lot might be a start — so that at least some of these houses remain available to the next generation of full-time Whistler residents.

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