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Ski Resort Life

Vail vs. Whistler: Then Came Trouble


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Beaver Creek opened its lifts the same month Blackcomb did-the product, ironically, of financial troubles at Vail. The first money crunch came in the early Seventies, when Lionshead was built-with significant cost overruns-a mile west of Vail Village to accommodate growing skier numbers. From the outset critics decried Lionshead, which seemed intended to accommodate volume rather than promote charm. The design inspiration for the Lionshead gondola building had been the government-directed French resorts springing up then in the Alps; the hulking gondola building was constructed of poured concrete. For a time it served as Vail’s official fallout shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

New management got the costs under control, but on March 26, 1976, the Lionshead gondola suffered a catastrophic accident, killing four people and injuring eight. The resulting lawsuits, combined with several low-snow winters, put Vail Associates on shaky financial ground yet again. Harry Bass took the company over and turned his attention to developing Beaver Creek, a resort that would eventually spawn the town of Avon along I-70.

Beaver Creek, seven miles west of Vail, was to have been a site for the 1976 Winter Olympics. But in 1972, Colorado voted by a 3-2 margin to decline the Games, already awarded to Denver. They would cost too much and lead to excessive sprawl, critics claimed. Beaver Creek finally opened in December 1980. That same week both Deer Valley, Utah, and Blackcomb opened. They would be the last major ski resorts to open in North America.

As Whistler was getting off the ground, voices were being raised in Vail decrying the rapid sprawl of development-voices that were heard in Canada. “The current Eagle County master plan has failed to establish definitive growth patterns,” lamented architect Graeme Woodhouse in a 1980 article in Vail Local magazine. “The concept of ‘establishing communities’ has given way to a single unidentifiable development stretching 18 miles from East Vail to Edwards…The most effective means of attracting visitors to the mountains is to create surroundings different from those they are accustomed to. Have we lost sight of this?”

Up in Whistler, resort officials were keeping their eye very closely on the Vail Valley. “Lionshead was a design disaster, and Vail Village was really superb,” says architect Beck, who at Whistler had his first chance to design a pedestrian village from scratch. “I think most people coming into a place have no sense of why they like something or why they don’t. Our job as designers is trying to figure that out and make sure that experience works.”

Beck and the rest of Whistler’s founders had the luxury of both plentiful government money and iron-fisted control. They were able to envision the end, rather than just the beginning. Beck strove to scale buildings appropriately, define good view corridors, create lively pedestrian spaces and separate vehicles and pedestrians (an afterthought at Vail). Along with the rest of the ski industry, Whistler grew; by 1982, the combined ski areas of Whistler and Blackcomb were counting 647,000 skier visits, up from 280,000 in 1978. A thousand hotel and condo rooms had been built in the village, as well as 120,000 square feet of commercial space.

But, as at Lionshead, economics got in the way of a perfect village. The recession of 1982 hit Whistler hard, knocking property values down 40 percent and forcing the Whistler Land Company into bankruptcy. In 1983, the provincial government bought the WLC for $1. The province then oversaw development until 1989-an unthinkable concept in the United States-when the Whistler Resort Association took over. Design rules were relaxed to entice developers to build, and Beck cringes at some of the results. “It never really had enough emphasis on being a place in the mountains,” he said, “rather than what Vancouver architects’ ideas about what mountain buildings should be.”

For all that, though, WWhistler had made a critical break from Vail’s model. In the first plans drawn up in the Seventies, the town had set itself a goal: 45,000 beds. That was as big as it was going to be; when Whistler Village hit that number, stick a fork in it, for the resort would be done.

The number was adjusted in 1989, when it was bumped up in exchange for construction of two golf courses and a tennis club by developers. It was bumped again in early 2000, when Intrawest Corp. agreed to preserve a 132-acre tract of trees known as the Emerald Forest in exchange for 400 additional beds. Today the cap, as it is known, stands at 54,485 beds. Eighty-two percent have been built. That cap is now a deeply ingrained part of Whistler’s culture, the town’s equivalent of the Mayflower Compact. Fiddling with it is political suicide.

“In the Seventies, the council had extreme powers, way more power than any other municipality in British Columbia,” former mayor Meredith explains. “They said, ‘We’re going to do this village and no one else can do any commercial development in the municipality, period.'” Everybody understood and, at least implicitly, bought into that idea.

In 1990, in an effort to fight sprawl in the outlying portions of the town (which run for nine miles through the forested Fraser Valley), the minimum lot size to build a home outside the village core was raised from 20 acres to 100. “We understand,” Meredith says, “that if we kill the goose that laid the golden egg, we’ve got a bigger problem on our hands.”