What makes Whistler tick? Mountain Scene’s chief news hound Philip Chandler interrupted a recent visit to Canada for a chinwag with the most knowledgeable person on Whistler’s growth from the very beginning
World-leading mountain resorts Queenstown and Whistler, Canada, took very different paths to where they are today.
While developers have driven Queenstown’s growth, Whistler’s been moulded by planners from the beginning.
And no one’s played a greater role than long-time former planning boss Mike Vance.
“From the beginning, we planned Whistler to be the top four-season resort in the world,” he says.
The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) was incorporated only in 1975.
The pedestrian precinct, the Village, which the town’s centred around, was parcelled up to developers who built to specific guidelines with ground-floor retail and upstairs visitor and residential accommodation, Vance explains.
Building heights and the location of lanes were governed by view shafts, “so you were always connected with nature”.
“The concept is the forest tumbles into the Village.”
Landscaping includes numerous trees and hanging flower baskets.
Underground parking was provided for the businesses and apartment users, while 1200 day visitor parks were formed nearby.
Nightclubs are mostly put underground to avoid noise issues.
Like most other resorts, apart from Queenstown, Whistler embraced visitor taxes, which come out of your hotel bill and fund tourist marketing and infrastructure.
“We felt this was the least regressive way to collect funds because locals don’t tend to stay in the accommodation.”
Vance says “creating the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) in 1997 and empowering it was among the most important decisions we have made”.
Owned by RMOW and funded by developers, it manages 6400 bed units under a restricted covenant for the local workforce.
Rental units include those used for the Olympic Athletes Village when Whistler hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010.
There’s a balance between affordable rental and home ownership units.
WHA-controlled housing is subject to rent controls.
Whistler also has a development cap on the number of beds to limit its growth.
“The premise is that [otherwise] we lose the qualities that people are coming from the city to enjoy,” Vance says.
That cap, he explains, can be lifted for amenity projects like golf or tennis resorts and affordable housing.
To encourage walkers and cyclists, he says Whistler’s subdivisions are all connected by paved valley trails.
To lift service standards, he notes that new employees at the start of each ski season undergo customer service training, in return for reduced ski passes.
And ‘info kiosks’ are manned by volunteer red-shirted Village hosts who are treated to ‘thank you’ dinners by the council.
“The critical thing was we had the initial vision of what we were going to be and the community bought into it, and we’ve never really deviated from it,” Vance says.
RMOW’s ‘official community plan’ is regularly updated, he adds.
Whistler brain trust’s local influence
Local developer Alastair Porter says Whistler’s hugely influenced both his Frankton-based Remarkables Park Town Centre and Queenstown itself.
He says Whistler’s former planning boss Mike Vance and a top executive in Whistler-based resort development company Intrawest generously allowed their top consultant, Eldon Beck, to become Remarkables Park’s master planner and their number one architect Ray Letkeman to become their master architect.
Letkeman specifically designed the New World, H&J Smith and The Warehouse buildings.
Porter says Beck encouraged Remarkables Park into mixed-use development so it provided facilities for everybody, from young to old.
After one study trip to Whistler, sponsored by Remarkables Park, then council boss Duncan Field got the idea for the Queenstown Trails Trust.
“That’s a big benefit Queenstown’s gained from our association with Whistler.”
Porter says Queens-town’s Shaping our Future organisation also took root following a visit by Vance and Whistler’s then council boss who spoke about their Natural Step community initiative, which promotes sustainable principles. – PHILIP CHANDLER