Dec. 22, 2012 - Issue #897: Michael Rault
The master plan
Designing a ski hill, "the full meal deal"
It's a long process. The plan alone can take a handful of years to complete, depending on the size of the project and the number of government approvals required.
Brent Harley, owner and president of Brent Harley and Associates, a mountain resort design firm in Whistler, BC, has been designing ski hills for 34 years. His first was Edmonton's Sunridge in the '70s.
As a result of that project, Harley was hired to help design Blackcomb in 1978, so he moved to Whistler, where he remains to this day.
"When we do a master plan," he says, "it's more than just the ski lifts and the trails. It's the full meal deal. It's looking at all aspects of the operation."
The first step in that process is determining the comfortable carrying capacity for the proposed ski area. "By that," he explains, "I mean how many people can this ski hill hold and provide a really great skiing experience for."
To determine that number, designers analyze the available ski terrain, considering the three ski levels: beginner, intermediate and expert.
That's done by looking at digital maps of the area, which show the slopes' skiability.
When it's determined how many skiers the terrain can sustain, the designers consider the uphill carrying capacity and come up with a comfortable balance between the two.
"Then that gives you a number that you have to translate into the base area," Harley explains.
For example, if it's determined that 1000 skiers can comfortably ski on the terrain, then the designers translate that number into the number of required parking stalls and the amount of room necessary in the day lodge. That number will also determine what type of services are needed—whether there's day care available, or whether there's one bar or more, or one restaurant or more.
"All of those things need to be understood to bring this whole ski hill into balance," Harley says. "And then, once you've got that figured out, you start asking questions directly associated with that."
Questions like, are hotels needed; if there are hotels, then how many additional restaurants are needed; and should there be other activities to entertain guests after they finish skiing?
Once all of the questions are answered and the resort's winter concept is figured out, then the designers start to consider summer activities that will make the hill sustainable.
"All resorts now, all ski areas, have come to a position where they have to be four-season operations to make a go of it. So it's more than just skiing now: you have to understand the year-round experience."
That could be anything from a golf course to mountain biking, sightseeing, aerial adventure parks or a mixture of the bunch.
"All of those things have a capacity, as well, so then you bring that back into balance," Harley explains.
Then, with the concept in place for both the winter and the summer months, designers consider how and when the runs and lifts should be developed.
"You want to be able to take baby steps at first," Harley says. "Put a couple of lifts in, put a day lodge in. Ultimately, though, it's a dozen lifts and a village, but each one of those steps leads to the next one. And, again, it needs to be well balanced. It has to have beginner skiing in phase one, as it does intermediate and expert skiing in phase one. You can't have it all beginner, you can't have it all intermediate. You have to provide for the whole market place right from the beginning."
To do that, designers consider that 20 percent of skiers on the hill are beginners, 20 percent are experts and the remaining 60 percent are intermediate. So, when designing the hill and laying out the phases of development, those ratios are considered.
"The goal is to create that balance on a phase-by-phase basis," Harley says. "And, each one of those phases has to be able to stand on its own, especially in the big projects, otherwise you end up with signs saying, 'Wait until you see us in phase five' and big holes and all sorts of problems.
"So, each one of those phases in the master plan are always designed as a finished project because you might be living in phase three forever."
Whistler is an example of how development can be phased in. In the late '70s, only one side of the mountain was developed and there was no village. More than three decades later, there is a massive village, the opposite side of the mountain has been developed, and so has Blackcomb.
"It's been an incremental process. But, then again, Whistler is kind of one of those perfect-storm projects. Everything has worked out really well for it over the years."
Not every project is like that, says Harley. Sometimes during the planning stages, even before a shovel has left the back of the truck, the developer and the designers realize there's just no way to make the project work.
"We always get to decision points in our project where, in a worst-case scenario, you get to a go or no-go decision point and it might be that as you're going through this exercise there might be enough fatal flaws with the site and with the circumstances that it's just better to not go there.
"That's part of the risk as the developer."
Other complications that can halt a project are government approvals. For instance, if a developer wants to develop on Crown land, then they first have to submit an expression of interest for that land, putting into motion a review process and environmental assessment.
There are also consultations that need to happen with area First Nations and the municipality.
"In the case of British Columbia, it goes to a master plan that gets filed to the government and then they go into a master development agreement and then part of that goes to whatever municipality you're working in, then you're into zoning bylaws and community plans, and all of that stuff has to be in place before you put your first shovel in the ground," Harley says.
Nowadays, he adds, the process take much longer than it did 20 or 25 years ago because people have a greater concern about how a development will affect the environment.
So, brand new projects—referred to as "green fields"—are under greater scrutiny.
An example of that would be Jumbo Glacier Resort, about 55 km outside of Invermere, BC. Jumbo was proposed decades ago, and was thought to be dead, until last March when the provincial government approved it.
The $1 billion development that will become Canada's first year-round glacier-based ski resort was first proposed in the early '90s.
"There are lots of project like Jumbo that have taken just as long. There's one in Squamish, it's called Garibaldi. It's been around for at least 30 years," Harley says.
"Ski hills definitely take years to develop."
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