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Red flags raised about more retail space

Council to consider London Drugs through new lens



By Alison Taylor

The long-awaited retail strategy may not be the panacea London Drugs was looking for in its quest to find a home in Whistler.

“Certainly it’s hard to find much in the retail strategy that supports the approval of London Drugs,” said Mayor Ken Melamed, following Monday’s council meeting which saw the release of the Whistler Sustainable Retail Strategy.

London Drugs president Wynne Powell disagrees. While he believes there is some confusion around the study’s recommendations, he said key findings in the study are met by adding a London Drugs to the village retail mix.

“The report says rightly there’s a lack of effective retailing in the village,” said Powell. “The report also says that the village lacks diversity and merchandise offerings and needs more basic necessities at a great variety of price points. It then goes on and says the village needs to attract more foot traffic in all seasons.

“When I look at that, and obviously I’m biased but I believe London Drugs will do all of these things.”

The study, however, specifically recommends that no new retail space be created except for existing zoned and undeveloped space. In particular, it calls for the space London Drugs is hoping to occupy to remain under its current zoning — restaurant, entertainment, office, storage. In other words, non-retail space.

The report states: “Similar types of uses to those achieved at the cinema space should be considered for remaining underground spaces that create a new activity while adding to the street front experience.”

“There already is a significantly large amount of retail space,” said Chris Le Tourner of Thomas Consultants who presented the study and its recommendations at the council meeting.

“It’s about repositioning and enhancing what you have in terms of the amount of space.”

Powell said the strategy is not clear in its recommendations.

“I would say that we’re confused by the report and we’re not really sure what the conclusion is,” he said Tuesday, the day after this week’s council meeting.

“Every non-retailer that we’ve looked at that has occupied that space has failed.”

While he is looking for more clarity on the strategy’s findings, he remained upbeat that it didn’t definitely rule out the possibility of a London Drugs.

“It’s not a turn down of our situation so that’s encouraging, I think that’s very encouraging,” said Powell.

London Drugs is looking to open a two-level 17,000 square foot store but needs council to amend the zoning in the lower half of the Village Centre property, below the Eddie Bauer location, to allow retail.

The previous council commissioned the retail strategy more than a year ago in response to the hot-button application for the London Drugs store.

Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden reminded council of the history as she asked Le Tourner how confident he was with the strategy’s statement that large format value discount stores are one the least preferred formats for the village.

“That comes straight out of the consumer survey,” he answered.

And that survey was done before the two big box stores, Home Depot and Wal-Mart, opened in Squamish, added Wilhelm-Morden.

Powell said this London Drugs proposal is much smaller than a traditional “large format value discount” store. Their surveys show that there is 70 per cent support for the store in the community.

And their proposal has the bulk of the store located in the basement level.

But more than a guide for the London Drugs proposal, the strategy provides an overall direction on how to deal with the resort retail experience.

It calls on Whistler to create retail nodes and define the characteristics of each node. For example, the skiers plaza area with the Longhorn and the GLC should continue to be a high energy food and beverage area, whereas the Upper Village at the base of Blackcomb Mountain should harness its upscale hotel accommodations to continue to attract boutique shopping and luxury retail brands, along with fine dining.

But what can council do to control what comes and goes from the retail mix they asked?

“We do live in a free enterprise society,” said Councillor Eckhard Zeidler as he looked to Le Tourner for answers about council’s role in controlling retail.

There are many recommendations for local government to improve and enhance its retail offerings.

“Where the municipality can really do something is in the public space,” said Le Tourner.

He used as an example interactive features throughout the village, such as fire pits, and dancing fountains — things to draw to people into the town. He also suggested more encroachments of outdoor patios on municipal property, and more events and animation to draw people through the streets and ultimately into shops.

One way to entice more local independent retailers to the mix is to limit the size of the stores. The strategy calls for council to consider maximum retail and restaurant size guidelines for storefronts at grade level. Generally large multinational stores aren’t interested in setting up shop in small retail spaces.

The municipality also has an opportunity to create something unique by using Lots 1 and 9, the last remaining large empty space in the village.

But the biggest question still to be answered is the question of London Drugs.

A rezoning application is sitting at municipal hall in anticipation of the strategy’s results.

Powell believes council has a tough decision ahead but he will respect that decision come what may.

“I think we may be in a situation where the community wants it and there may be some confusion around it,” said Powell.

“It’s raised some interesting points.”

He could not say when the application would be coming up for council’s consideration.

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