Climbing innovation and highway upgrade helped turn Squamish into bedroom community of Vancouver

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      Once upon a time, Squamish was the place where motorists would pick up a burger at a drive-through restaurant on their way to Whistler. A blue-collar town built on forestry, it was the furthest thing from a tourist destination in the 1970s.

      But that began to change in the 1980s and 1990s with the growing popularity of rock climbing. A major advancement was the invention of the battery-powered Hilti drill, which enabled climbers to attach stronger bolts into the granite.

      As a result, the magnificent Stawamus Chief, a 700-metre granite dome overlooking Squamish, became a magnet for climbing enthusiasts, with several moving into the area.

      Stawamus Provincial Park was established in 1997, boosting the profile of the Chief. Its three summits can all be reached by back-side hiking trails, but it is the vertical front face that attracts elite climbers.

      By 2008, the District of Squamish was estimating that climbing spots in the region were generating approximately $25 million per year in revenue. With the 2010 Olympics looming and the highway undergoing massive improvements, politicians decided to dub their community the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada”.

      This branding led to far greater appreciation for all that the Squamish area has to offer, including world-class mountain biking, whitewater rafting, standup paddleboarding, kayaking, and hiking. In winter, the region attracts thousands of bald eagles.

      In 2015, the New York Times included Squamish on its annual list of 52 destinations to visit that year, highlighting its year-round Sea to Sky Gondola, which rises 885 metres above Howe Sound. A more recent rebranding exercise has defined Squamish as being “hardwired for adventure”.

      But adventure isn’t Squamish’s only calling card. It has also become a hot real-estate attraction.

      In March, the benchmark price for a single-family detached home in Squamish passed the $1-million mark, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

      Relatively speaking, however, home prices are still lower up the Sea to Sky Highway than in many areas of the Lower Mainland, with the benchmark price for Squamish apartments at just $516,800 in May. That was down 5.1 percent from the previous month.

      Among the projects on the market is Jumar, by Wave Developments. It will include one-, two-, and three-bedroom units in a 101-unit complex in downtown Squamish. Due to be completed in 2020, Jumar will also feature ground-floor shops and services, as well as a 6,000-square-foot child-care centre.

      The 101-unit Jumar project is one of several developments in the Sea to Sky Corridor.

      That’s one of the largest, but it’s not the only offering on the market.

      Newport Beach on the Squamish oceanfront will become home to up to 6,500 residents in a master-planned community created through a partnership of Bethel Lands Corporation and Texas-based Matthews Southwest. Then there’s Benchmark Homes Ltd.’s Ravenswood, an upscale 111-unit subdivision with units ranging from 1,854 square feet to 2,411 square feet.

      In the Garibaldi Highlands near Quest University, there’s another large development called University Heights. And down the highway at Britannia Beach, Macdonald Development is developing more than 70 townhomes and 14 rental apartments.

      Back in 2007, SFU researcher Donald Gutstein wrote an article in the Georgia Straight focusing on the impact of the 2010 Winter Games on real estate in the Sea to Sky corridor. He cited a B.C. Ministry of Highways and Transportation report concluding that of all the possible road improvements to Whistler, upgrading Highway 99 North scored the highest for “developable land accessed”.

      When this $795-million project was completed, it set off a real-estate rush that continues to this day.

      In 2012 the highway project received a favourable review from then–auditor general John Doyle, with the B.C. government noting that the number of motor-vehicle accidents dropped more than 40 percent from 2004 to 2011 after improvements had been completed.