Months of debate surrounding one of the largest and most controversial development proposals in resort history was put to rest Tuesday night (Dec. 3) after council squashed the Whistler International Campus (WIC) project before the rezoning process could begin.
Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden was the last member of council to explain her rationale in voting against rezoning consideration for the proposed site of the university campus, a 77-acre parcel known as the Zen Lands.
“This is not a proposal to build a university,” she said to the more than 60 members of the public in attendance. “This is a proposal to build a large commercial development…”
The project called for approximately one million square feet of development, excluding underground space, that would service up to 1,500 students in 27 different buildings. Annual operations at the campus were estimated to provide 400 new jobs.
A disappointed Doug Player, the face of the project for several years, said the campus proposal was always about education first and foremost.
“I would never bring just a commercial venture here. This was all about education,” he said. “It's an opportunity that will never come again … It's an opportunity for economic diversification. It's an opportunity to provide for kids in the community. It's an opportunity certainly for the business.”
Of particular concern at the council table were the 2,924 bed units above Whistler's growth cap that would be required. According to Whistler's Official Community Plan, the bed unit limit can only be raised for a project that “demonstrates extraordinary benefits to the resort community,” criteria that the WIC proponents didn't meet, according to Councilor Jack Crompton.
“As much as I think this is an interesting concept, it simply doesn't rise to the level of 'extraordinary benefit' that the OCP requires,” he said.
Councilor Jayson Faulkner shared Crompton's view, calling the bed units “by far and away our best… currency.
“One of the reasons Whistler has been so successful is the judicious use of those bed units,” he added.
Leaving the council meeting, Player said he wished staff had paid the same time and attention to WIC proponents as they did with the team behind the incoming Audain Art Museum, which was fast-tracked by Municipal Hall last year.
“I think the fact is, had they sat down with us, as they did with Michael Audain for example and said 'hey, let's talk about size' then we could have dealt with that. But there was no interest in doing that.” The controversial Zen Lands will remain zoned for four single-family homes.
“I saw no open door today,” Player added. “No open door from the mayor or from anyone on that council to look at it. So it's very unfortunate in my opinion. I think it's a terribly sad night and a lost opportunity.”
The RMOW's Chief Administrative Officer Mike Furey confirmed that the municipality are currently working with two different organizations on a pair of educational initiatives for the resort, with hopes to bring the projects forward for consideration in the coming months.
The council-appointed Education and Learning Task Force issued a report in the summer providing Municipal Hall with a framework to consider future post-secondary educational opportunities in the resort. At that time, nine proposed initiatives were outlined, including the WIC project. Municipal staff has also been in discussion with several other parties interested in pursuing educational opportunities in Whistler, including Vancouver's Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, The Canadian Sport Institute, The Whistler Education Group and UBC's Sauder School of Business.
With files from Pique Newsmagazine