Editor’s note: This is the second part in a three-part series about Basalt’s Our Town effort to plan the future of the downtown. Wednesday’s article looked at the five properties involved in the unique planning process. Today’s article looks at who is participating in the process. Friday’s article takes a sample of opinions.
Basalt has built a reputation over the past decade or so for being a place where development projects went to die.
It might not be totally fair. Willits Town Center, after all, is in the middle of adding more than 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space.
But the perception isn’t just about numbers. Some people feel the town government has been guilty of throwing out good ideas along with the bad, according to Bill Maron, a special projects manager with the town.
The joke goes something like: “Basalt never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” Maron said.
But civic leaders think they got it right with the Our Town planning effort that will determine the potential uses on five key parcels near the downtown core. Instead of hiring consultants to work on a generic plan and enlist token public input, this process is bottom-up. Hundreds of residents and visitors have accepted the town’s invitation to mark up a map that shows an aerial view of Basalt with the five key parcels whited out. Participants are asked to draw in their vision for Basalt — be it parks, community facilities or private development. Anything goes.
From students to architects
Some maps outline general concepts, such as how the properties should be developed. Others get very specific — showing precisely where a Trader Joe’s supermarket or a Starbucks coffeehouse should go.
More than 125 school kids from Basalt flashed their creativity. The entire staffs of a few architectural firms sunk their teeth into the community design. “Princeton moms,” who are highly educated but taking time off work to raise families, gladly put pen to paper, according to Maron. Community curmudgeons and civic boosters submitted their ideas.
Town consultant Jim Kent took the show on the road and held a dozen neighborhood meetings that attracted an average of a dozen residents each. He and Maron have met with numerous civic groups, ranging from the Lions Club to Willits Town Center business owners.
The town government rented a vacant space in the Three Bears building on Midland Avenue and invited people to enter and prepare their own maps.
“Sometimes it’s just people looking inside that will participate,” Maron said. “I’ll collar them and bring them inside.”
Anyone who wants to put pen to paper is welcomed.
“It doesn’t matter where people are from,” Maron said. “They just have to care about Basalt.”
More than “old, white guys”
Roughly 300 maps have been turned in by individuals or teams. Kent, who consults with governments and businesses on public participation, said this was so successful because people like to talk to their peers rather than go to a high-pressure situation such as speaking at a council meeting.
“This is one of the best we’ve ever done,” he said.
He credits Town Manager Mike Scanlon for demanding a community planning process that enlisted rather than merely invited public input.
“We’re really good about getting the old, white guys involved,” Scanlon said. Municipal governments aren’t as diligent about aggressively soliciting the opinions of youth, even though they obviously represent the future.
Scanlon and Town Planner Susan Philp visited classrooms of first-, fourth- and eighth-graders to explain the community planning effort and get them enthused to chime in.
“What I find funny is some of the first-graders’ ideas aren’t that outlandish,” Scanlon said. One first-grade team suggested drawing attention downtown by putting the largest nail ever manufactured in a future park alongside the Roaring Fork River. Another group suggested gracing the park with a giant harp that would produce music when the wind blows.
Student planners dig in
One afternoon about a month ago, the classes of fourth-grade teachers Lisa Lowsky and Melissa Gatlin divided into five groups of about seven students each to take an initial crack at community planning. Not surprisingly, many of their ideas for development or redevelopment on key parcels such as the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park or the Clark’s Market building focused on entertainment. One group suggested an indoor skydiving facility, where divers are rigged up to simulate falling from a greater height.
“You’re like a flying squirrel,” a boy explained.
Sushi bars were, oddly enough, a top priority for a couple of groups. A petting zoo and a Sports Authority curried favor with another group.
One set of student designers thought outside the box. They re-created the entire Basalt core, not just the five properties whited out on their aerial-view map.
“We bulldozed a bunch of houses so we could have more space,” the representative explained.
The classes of Lowsky and Gatlin didn’t stop with that top-of-mind planning session. In the weeks that followed, they had guest lectures from experts that provided useful information for community planning. A wildlife biologist told them about the value of riparian habitat along rivers. A community planner from Pitkin County discussed basics of effective towns. A marketing expert explained the importance of drawing people downtown for economic health. The fourth-graders worked on individual maps and presented their refined plans to Scanlon, Philp and Mayor Jacque Whitsitt in early May.
Some of the high-adrenaline entertainment facilities survived, but now the maps also included open space, parking structures, a hotel and retail shops.
Distilling a hodgepodge of ideas
Adults took the process just as seriously. Many of the maps feature meticulously drawn plans or even employ construction paper to convey thoughts. High school students and aspiring designers in the Youth Entity program worked with architect Geno Rossetti to create a model of their downtown revitalization plan.
“People love their town. If you nudge them to do it, they’ll take over,” Scanlon said.
Now the town staff and consultants have to condense the hundreds of maps into a workable blueprint. They will sift through the maps to find common themes and elements to develop three model maps. The models will be posted online so that participants can choose their favorites. The choices will be narrowed to two. The options will be unveiled May 29 so that people can weigh in on them with pros and cons for two weeks. The Town Council will select a final design June 24 so that the community has a development and redevelopment blueprint for developers to follow.
Scanlon said he’s not worried about taking such a hodgepodge of ideas and distilling it down to one plan.
“You just let people go. People think they’re going to come up with 1,000 different plans, but they don’t,” he said.
Some common elements leapt out early in the process — access to and protection for the Roaring Fork River, a permanent and prominent home for the Wyly Community Arts Center, a big park and a hotel.
A peer group will review the two final designs before they are unveiled to the public. That group was set up as a check and balance to make sure that what the public wants is economically feasible to develop. It’s meant to guard against producing a pretty plan that serves no useful purpose.
But what if the process comes to the end and a bunch of participants are alienated because they feel their ideas were ignored? Kent doesn’t think that will happen. At least a small part of every plan will make the final cut, he predicted.
“When they see some part of them in the plan — that’s OK,” Kent said.
“It doesn’t matter where people are from. They just have to care about Basalt.”
Bill Maron, town of Basalt