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Questions abound at info meetings for Whistler housing project

Rezoning bylaws, formal public hearing to follow

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A pair of open houses on Oct. 24 for a proposed employee housing project on Alta Lake Road were well attended, with a wide range of questions and comments heard—both for and against.

Like others before it, the development at 5298 Alta Lake Rd. has drawn the ire of nearby neighbours, who wrote to council en masse to oppose it before it was first presented on Sept. 17.

The project floated by Empire Club Development Corp.—the principals of which are former Whistler Housing Authority chair Michael Hutchison, Jon Dietrich and Biagio Cusano—proposes 15 new three-bedroom employee-housing-restricted townhomes and 22 three-bedroom market-tourist-accommodation townhomes.

It was submitted under the Resort Municipality of Whistler's guidelines for private developers, which were updated in March to allow limited amounts of new, unrestricted market housing.

As part of its application, Empire proposes parkland dedication on the site, as well as restoration of the historical Hillman cabin and relocation to the park to create a historical landmark.

Dedication of a riparian/tree preservation area along the lake foreshore and rail line, as well as dedication of a future Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) employee housing parcel adjacent the existing Nita Lake Resident Housing are also included in the proposal.

"We think that this is one of the pieces of housing that our community desperately needs, and I don't know of another way to produce it," Hutchison said in a presentation at the first open house, which was attended by 49 people (a second open house later in the evening drew 36 attendees).

"WHA can't do it, because they're doing rentals and they get grants. That's how they afford it, and you can't get a grant for something you're going to sell."

Further, the WHA waitlist has 664 people on it looking for a three-bedroom house, "and there isn't another project coming that we know of for three bedrooms ... so that's a lot of folks sitting on a waitlist hoping for something," Hutchison said.

From 2016 to 2018, just 18 three-bedroom townhomes were resold in Whistler, Hutchison noted, ranging in price from between $458,700 and $574,100 (the employee-restricted townhomes in the proposed development are priced at $490,000).

But considering that the proponents want to retain eight of the 15 employee housing units for their own staff, "that's not very many people that are going to come off that waitlist," noted attendee (and Pique columnist) G.D. Maxwell.

"So I guess I'll throw the challenge out to you: get that down to a reasonable level, and you've got something that's at least a little more attractive for your stated goal, which is housing residents who are on the waitlist," Maxwell said.

"Even better ... that nice chunk of land that you're willing to donate for future employee housing, boy it would be great if it went up at the same time, you know? Let's really chip away at this problem."

The final makeup of the project is "still negotiable," Hutchison said. "We're looking for some guidance."

Another attendee said she was in support, but concerned about the potential additional traffic.

"I support 95 per cent of what you're doing here, I think it's great," she said.

"What I'm worried about is can my kids play on the road? Is that still OK? Is this going to be something that we're going to have to concern ourselves with as the strata up the street?"

There's "no point in pretending there aren't going to be more cars," Hutchison said. "But what you can say is that your kids can now walk down the hill to a park ... and because of the way this housing is done, it's very highly family friendly, so this is most likely to be families with kids, too."

Further, the proposed density doesn't compare to other Whistler neighbourhoods, Hutchison added.

"I understand your anxiety, but if you take your entire neighbourhood and line it up with Rainbow or Cheakamus Crossing, you are far and away less traffic," he said.

But the increased traffic on Nita Lake Drive is a concern, said attendee Cheryl Green, noting that the road already goes down to one lane in the winter time.

"We've got to be cautious to slow down when we go down around the road, and you're going to put a whole bunch of extra cars on that road and it's an accident waiting to happen around this blind corner," she said.

"And it needs to be looked at; the traffic study needs to be done at a high time when it's the high traffic."

In response to a question about the intended use of the market housing, Hutchison noted that the site is zoned for Tourist Accommodation.

"It's exactly the same as Nicklaus North, and it's exactly the same as the site next to it," he said. "You can either buy it and live in it, [or] you can buy it and rent it."

Another questioner asked about the viability of market housing in the future, when Tourism Whistler is predicting a downturn in tourism in the coming years.

Hutchison invoked the 2008 financial crash as a comparison.

"It was no fun, and when development goes good, you look like a genius, and when development goes bad, everybody wants to take everything you have," he said.

"So that's why the private sector needs a profit. If you don't make a profit, there's nothing for them to take. So clearly that's our risk ... and my bank is only too happy to price that risk and make me pay if I get it wrong."

A report to council on Sept. 17 included a view of the site's historical context courtesy of the Whistler Museum and Archives—the lot was once owned by local sawmill owners Alf and Bessie Gebhart, who constructed the cabin that still stands there today in the mid '40s.

In the mid '60s, Charles Hillman purchased the property, and the cabin became known as the first incarnation of Toad Hall.

Both museum and RMOW staff feel that "the dual narratives of early industry intersecting with early local ski counter culture make this property compelling from a historical perspective," the report to council reads.

After a lengthy discussion at that meeting, council voted unanimously to authorize further review (see Pique, Sept. 19).

The application is still in the review stage and is not yet scheduled for first and second readings.

Following second reading, a formal public hearing would be held before the bylaw is brought back for third reading and then adoption.

Council is pleased to see continued progress on initiatives from the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing—launched in 2016 with a target of adding 1,000 employee beds by 2022—such as four new WHA buildings (one already open, two scheduled for completion before the end of the year, and another just starting construction), said Mayor Jack Crompton.

"At the same time, a variety of private development projects are in various stages of planning. While I can't comment on the specific details of the various proposals, developments by private companies are one key aspect to increasing housing inventory in Whistler for our workforce," Crompton said.

"They have the potential to deliver housing with little-to-no cost to the community, and offer workforce housing throughout Whistler. Historically these kind of resident housing projects (including Rainbow and Fitzsimmons Walk and many others) have resulted in more vibrant, livable neighbourhoods."

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