Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

It’s the zoning, stupids

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By G.D. Maxwell

Being mostly Canadian, I guess it’s inevitable Whistler is destined to spend an inordinate amount of time pokin’ the ol’ belly button and contemplating the cosmic questions: What makes me different and what do I want to be when I grow up?

It was all so much easier when we were smaller, younger, nowhere near world class and hadn’t sold our soul to the devil for success and fame.

What made us different then was quintessentially Canadian – our geography, the electric mix of homegrown Canadians and more traveled foreigners who became the visionaries behind this experiment, and their harebrained notion they could build a damn fine ski resort at the far end of the country in the middle of a rain forest. It was the sixties; who knew what they were smoking.

That the experiment worked at all is probably the fault of Al Raine and Hugh Smythe. If Al hadn’t been so insistent in nagging the BC government to authorize the building of Blackcomb and Hugh hadn’t done such a good job of building it, Whistler today might be Fernie with a nearby urban population base. Great skiing; nothing special.

But Whistler isn’t Fernie, Whistler isn’t new, Whistler isn’t simple, and as much as some of us might wish otherwise, Whistler isn’t a ski resort anymore.

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree…."

Coleridge’s Xanadu was a vision in a dream, a fragment of verse fuelled by opium. He never finished what he started because he was never able to returne to the place he started from. Neither can we.

The future is all we have to look forward to; the past is just a millstone around the future’s neck. But is the future of Whistler embodied in the unfortunately named London Drugs?

Having tried to avoid this divisive subject, let me procrastinate further.

Let’s start with a lost premise. This bunfight over London Drugs isn’t about London Drugs. It isn’t about saving trips to the city, it isn’t about enhancing affordability, it isn’t about David versus Goliath, it isn’t about homegrown as opposed to imported, mom & pop as opposed to multinational.

This fight is about a developer trying to unload a white elephant. To a lesser degree, this fight’s about makin’ deals and breakin’ deals.

And make no mistake, this fight is most definitely about the future of Whistler.

When the dust settled and then negotiations were over, Larco, the developer, got permission to fill in the Keg parking lot. Part of the deal was zoning on the underground space for recreational amenities, fun and games.

Larco agreed to this deal because it was in their best interests to do so. The planners and council of the day agreed to it because it was in the best interests of the town to foster greater, more diverse recreational opportunities that weren’t exposed to our fickle west coast weather.

So why is Larco trying to weasel out of its deal and change the zoning to allow subterranean retail?

Money.

The previous attempts to build underground recreational amenities failed for the same reasons most businesses fail: bad plans, bad management. Underlying those failures, however, was a landlord who wanted too much for the space – more than the market could bear and still return a profit to the lessee – and a lessee who agreed to pay it and pinned his success on hope instead of realistic business sense.

There is no argument that London Drugs will be a much more lucrative tenant than any conceivable recreation-oriented tenant. So what? There is also no argument a well-planned, market-oriented pleasure dome would succeed if it were paying more reasonable rent.

It made sense when the deal was struck to develop the underground space for recreation. It still makes sense, especially after last January when those of us on the front line were dealing with frantic tourists looking for something dry to do.

It made sense, as well, in 1988 when the muni struck a deal with Park Georgia on the lands north of Marketplace. The developer in that case agreed to build a world class tennis facility, another recreational amenity planned to broaden the appeal of Whistler beyond skiing. Park Georgia high graded Montebello, built the cheesy tennis club we have now and sold the rest of the development rights to another developer who is now trying to weasel out of the deal.

In both cases, the deals negotiated and the zoning passed were part of a carefully crafted plan, the kind of plan we await so hopefully to emerge from the current, endless, sustainable planning morass we’ve been mired in lo these so many years.

Plans ain’t worth a damn if there is no political will to follow through on them.

And so, that is what the London Drugs bunfight is about, boys and girls. About developers trying to weasel out of their good-faith commitments and about this council’s last best chance to show some gumption and conviction and put their money where their planning mouths are. Time to walk the talk.

To sharpen our focus, let’s harvest the red herrings that have been showing up on Pique’s letter pages.

Council’s ill-timed by-law to limit the size of retail operations to 5,000 square feet is not an assault on the principles of free markets. Grow up. There ain’t no free markets. If there were, Larco could rent their space out to an abattoir. This is about zoning and planning, both of which have been legitimate reins on free markets since people realized living next door to abattoirs was a smelly, disgusting proposition.

Just because Whistler’s taken on too many unfortunate trappings of urban life doesn’t mean you have any rights to shop in big stores with cheaper prices. In case you skipped that day in kindergarten, you can’t have it all people. If you can use the affordability card to rationalize this assault on our little, planned mountain home you can use it to open the doors to any and all bigger and better stores where you can save a buck. There are, and should be, costs associated with living here; it’s what makes the place special.

And just because we had the bad taste to let Starbucks, Gap, Eddie Bauer, and far too many junk food chains infiltrate this town, just because we sold our future to the Olympics™, just because we’ve allowed rapacious landlords to bring home-grown commerce to its knees, doesn’t mean we have to keep repeating the mistakes of the past. Trying to correct your mistakes, or at least foregoing compounding them, is a sure sign of maturity.

Personally, I’d rather have the next story I read about Whistler begin more like the one I read recently about Stowe. It opened by saying, "Stowe, Vt., is a resort town with a soul. Nearly every business is locally owned; there is not a chain-affiliated store, restaurant or motel to be found."

So much nicer than, "Whistler, BC, is a resort town with a really big, cheap drug store."

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