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December 4, 2013
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Willits wants to alter approvals

The owner and developer of Willits Town Center is seeking some major alterations of the project’s approvals from the Basalt Town Council in a process that will kick off Tuesday night.

Mariner Real Estate Management Inc., of suburban Kansas City, Kan.,said in its application that it wants to build off the success the project has enjoyed since Whole Foods Market opened in August 2012. There are now 34 establishments employing about 300 workers, the application said. In addition, there have been between 40 and 80 construction workers on the site over the past two years. Mariner wants to keep the momentum going by altering approvals that will help it complete additional buildings.

Mariner’s application said Willits is entering a new phase of maturity.

“The general uncertainty of whether Willits could become a successful project is pretty well settled and the focus is now on completing it as expeditiously as possible,” the application said.

Willits Town Center is one of the biggest developments in the Roaring Fork Valley. Basalt approved roughly 500,000 square feet of residential and commercial development in 12 major buildings. Less than half of the project has been built thus far.

Tim Belinski, Mariner’s local representative, said company officials believe they are proposing changes that would benefit the project as well as Basalt as a whole.

“When it’s a good project, we all come out ahead,” he said.

Mariner will outline the proposed changes to the council at its regular meeting Tuesday, according to town Planning Director Susan Philp. The planning staff also will prepare information for the council to consider, but no decisions are expected Tuesday, she said.

A change that doesn’t require town approval is shifting the site of a proposed hotel. Mariner wants to build a hotel with 100 to 120 rooms at a site close to Highway 82, in the southeast corner of Willits Town Center and southeast of Whole Foods. The hotel was slated to go along Willits Lane at the roundabout intersection with Valley Road. Belinski said the hotel site was changed to draw hotel customers further into the mix of restaurants, retail shops and service providers.

Following are some of the alterations sought by Mariner:

• It wants building-permit and plan-review fees waived “as a means of assisting with the hotel’s financial viability.” The fees would total an estimated $250,000. The justification, the application said, is that a hotel would provide a significant, positive economic impact to the community.

• In addition to the fee waiver, Mariner is seeking $75,000 per year for 10 years to help the hotel’s operations. The funds could come out of the town’s general fund, the application suggested. It suggested that similar economic aid would be advisable to attract a hotel to downtown Basalt.

• Mariner wants the parking requirements for the hotel eased from one space per room to 0.8 spaces per room. In addition, Mariner wants use of a parcel designated for public parking next to the hotel. In return, Mariner would give the town government 20 spaces in an underground parking garage under Whole Foods.

• Mariner wants to increase the numbers of free-market residences in three buildings, although no specific proposal is ripe for review. The increased residential plan will be submitted along with a proposal for affordable housing.

• Special permission will be sought for signs along the highway for commercial tenants in the Willits Town Center interior. “Willits Town Center has been designed to be inward facing, accentuating a small-town vibe and scale for those who enter the area,” the application said. “Although the highway is close by, the buildings largely turn their backs on the highway exposure. From a typical retailer’s point of view, this orientation is counterproductive, since retail storefronts as a rule face the highway.”

Mariner’s application said the sign restrictions contribute to national businesses’ hesitancy to sign a lease at the development.

“Currently, prospective tenants located outside the valley routinely have misperceptions about Willits Town Center and the trade area that have prevented growth at Willits Town Center,” the application said.

Belinski said the plan isn’t to create a development that looks like it could be anywhere in the U.S., and there is no regret having the development focused inward rather than out to the highway.

“Once you’re in the project, it’s much more successful than a strip mall facing the highway,” he said.

As for parking, Belinski said Mariner believes that as more streets and parking spaces become available, it would benefit the area as a whole. Mariner doesn’t want to take action that would make it more difficult to park in the development, but it doesn’t believe reducing the code requirement for the hotel would have a detrimental impact. A significant number of parking spaces plus an underground garage will open in about two months when the Market Street Crossings building opens, he said. The decrease in parking for the hotel is being sought to make the project more economically feasible.

Mariner will make the case to the town that waiving fees and investing $75,000 per year for 10 years in the hotel through contributions from the general funds is a good “investment,” Belinski said.

“The premise is the hotel generates more than that” through sales and lodging taxes, he said.

Construction of the hotel could theoretically start next spring, the application said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 5, 2013 01:17PM Published Dec 4, 2013 09:00PM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.