Editor’s note: This story initially appeared in the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, our sister paper covering the midvalley. For more, visit rfweeklyjournal.com.
The Basalt Town Council on Tuesday night approved the Basalt River Park development by a 5-0 vote on first reading, but deadlocked on the Aspen Skiing Co.’s employee housing proposal in Willits Town Center.
The Basalt River Park proposal caps a seven-year battle over what to do with the former 2.3-acre Pan and Fork mobile home space along the Roaring Fork River just west of downtown Basalt.
“I think the process has worked,” said Tim Belinski, a local businessman and developer who heads Basalt River Park LLC. “There has been a lot of community buy-in, a lot of community involvement. Before I got involved, there was a lot of history. I picked this up and tried to reconcile that and balance it out and make it work, and I think we’re there.”
Some elected officials wanted the acreage to be all park, while others sought more development to boost downtown Basalt businesses.
In the end, there was compromise. Town Councilmen Gary Tennenbaum and Auden Schendler both noted that while the project was not perfect, there were many community benefits accompanying the residential development.
As approved on first reading, the Basalt River Park project will include 24 residences that range from rent-controlled units and free-market apartments to luxury river cabins. The project also calls for the creation of about 27,000 square feet of commercial space, which is considerably less than the 150,000 square feet of such space proposed by a previous developer.
The compromise calls for the town of Basalt to purchase about 1 acre, located on the eastern part of the development, for a river park. The municipality will pay $1.2 million for that parcel, and another corridor of open space on the western edge of the development near the Rocky Mountain Institute for $146,517.
As part of the proposal, Basalt River Park LLC also agreed to build a 3,000-square-foot restaurant with a 1,500-square-foot patio on the eastern edge near the new park.
Developer on the hook for more money
Part of the compromise involves the developer taking on additional financial responsibilities. Those terms were presented to the council on Tuesday night.
Bruce Kimmel of Ehlers Public Finance, an independent municipal advisory firm, previously advised council that approximately $750,000 in costs should be shifted from the town to the developer.
As part of the rebalancing, Basalt Park River LLC will now fund $600,000 of road and sidewalk improvements, bus stops, public restrooms and a parking area. That reduces the town’s costs for those amenities to about $244,000. Town government will buy the space earmarked for the nonprofit Art Base community arts center for $158,000, or the appraised value of the space, whichever is less.
The compromise allows the developer to increase the size of the luxury river cabins from 1,600 square feet up to 1,900 square feet.
Supporters and those opposed to the project, as well as those in the middle, voiced comments to town council.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt may have best summed up the past controversy about what to do with this key parcel of land best: “We all had a vision [for this property]. We all had a separate vision. The public’s [previous] no vote controlled the destiny. We have gained a lot. It will be good for us to have a decision.”
Former Basalt councilman Bernie Grauer, a current member of the planning and zoning commission, noted the compromise and called it “a sweet spot.” In a previous town survey, 77 percent wanted the property to be all park, but when a ballot measure was offered to the town’s residents to purchase all of the land with property taxes, it was voted down.
“The size, scale and mass [of the current proposal] are appropriate,” Grauer noted.
Not everyone in the audience agreed, including a gentleman who interrupted Schendler’s comments by telling him not to compromise.
Basalt businessman Royal Laybourn was blunt: “The public is not getting what they want. The developer is getting what they want.”
Local resident Gerry Terwilliger agreed, telling elected officials, “It’s time for council to represent the town, not the developer.”
After receiving its first-round approval, Basalt River Park LLC will return to council for additional approvals in the future after offering greater details of the project.
SkiCo’s Willits proposal deadlocked
The Basalt Town Council deadlocked 2-2 Tuesday night in considering the Aspen Skiing Co.’s worker housing proposal on Block 9 in Willits. Schendler, a senior executive for the company, recused himself, and Councilwomen Jennifer Riffle and Katie Schwoerer were unavailable for the meeting.
SkiCo is proposing to build 36 units and 148 bedrooms, with sizes ranging from one to six bedrooms. Also included are eight units of rent-controlled housing on the first floor of the building instead of the previously approved commercial space. Those units are currently being designated as a priority for child-care workers.
Parking would be handled by the company’s plan to build 34 off-street parking spaces and use 33 public spaces. SkiCo has proposed both leasing and, in its latest iteration, buying those spaces for $202,000.
Two weeks ago, there was a general consensus by the town council, and many local residents, that the proposal should be amended to remove the public spaces and instead provide parking in an underground garage.
Before Tuesday night’s meeting, the company offered two options: purchase the public parking spaces for $202,000 or tweak the development proposal by building underground parking and converting six-bedroom units to four-bedroom units.
But when David Corbin, the SkiCo’s senior vice president for planning and development, and Philip Jeffreys, the project manager of the proposal, sat down this week before council to discuss the development, the financial realities of the project were revealed. Corbin said that recent new discussions with the proposed contractor showed that costs had increased 17 percent since December on the original proposal and that the new alternative would run 32 percent higher, making the project unaffordable for employees and not viable for the company.
Jeffreys returned to the original proposal, including the purchasing of the public spaces for $202,000; he continued to tell council of the benefits of additional employee housing in Willits at affordable rental prices.
Both Jeffreys and Corbin detailed how the parking issues at Willits, which has been noted by many Willits residents, are mainly management and enforcement issues, instead of a lack of public spaces, and that original approvals for this building would entail over 90 bedrooms and house many more people, many of them with cars.
“The alternative is much worse,” Jeffreys said. “Parking is the biggest concern, and it will be a problem either way. Parking enforcement needs to align with reality.”
Jeffreys also noted that the original approval for the commercial space in the building used the public spaces around the building for parking, and that if the company removed the commercial from the space and built the rent-controlled units instead, those public spaces designated for that commercial space should be reallocated to residential in the company’s development proposal.
During public comments, the room remained as divided as it was two weeks ago.
Basaltine Carol Hawk voiced her opinion about the alternative proposal 2, with the underground parking, noting that it is “much more compatible” with the surrounding neighborhood. Resident Cathy Click, meanwhile, voiced her approval of the project and alternative 1 because it “encourages more mass transit.”
The council was just as divided. Councilmen Gary Tennenbaum and Bill Infante voiced their approval for the first alternative, which would allow the SkiCo to use the public spaces instead of building underground parking.
“We need to see SkiCo and its employees as allies,” said Infante.
Tennenbaum noted, “We asked developers to propose [an affordable housing] project. I look at this as a project we should be encouraging.”
Mayor Whitsitt and Councilman Ryan Slack had different opinions, with the former noting what some other Basalt residents had also expressed: “Given the environment values SkiCo has, this should be [built] closer to Aspen.”
Tennenbaum offered a motion for approval of alternative 1. The vote deadlocked at 2-2 and will now appear again before Basalt Town Council on June 11 when additional council members are anticipated to be present.