Trading tax dollars for small-town charm in Carbondale | AspenTimes.com

Trading tax dollars for small-town charm in Carbondale

John Stroud
Carbondale correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

John Stroud/Carbondale Valley JournalThe 24 acres of commercially-zoned property along Highway 133 in Carbondale still sits vacant some three decades after it was zoned for commer­cial uses, and five years after a plan for a big-box development was shot down by town voters in a referendum. A new plan calls for a mix of com­mercial and residential development at the site.

CARBONDALE ” Many a small town has fallen over backwards in glee at the prospect of big sales tax dollars generated from a national big-box retail chain store.

Some would say those towns inevitably suffered the consequences by becoming “Everytown, U.S.A.,” complete with cook­ie-cutter big box stores surrounded by fast food restaurants and look-alike strip malls. Others would argue that those towns, in turn, also reap the benefits that can come by opening the door to large, national retail chains, bolstering sales tax coffers to pay for things like infrastructure improve­ments, recreation programs, community services, more police officers, and other city services.

As Carbondale has faced that crossroads decision on numerous occasions in recent years, it certainly has had many opportu­nities to take the latter path.

But the community, by a collective, con­scious decision, has gone down a path toward the ideal of preserving things like small-town character, charm, diversity, and the natural environment.

And a big box store simply didn’t fit that pretty picture.

The new plan for the former Crystal Riv­er Marketplace site ” now called The Vil­lage at Crystal River ” signals a shift away from the big-box concept that dominated the raging debate over development of the 24 acres of commercially-zoned property along Highway 133 north of Main Street during the last decade.

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It calls for a total of 125,000 square feet of commercial space, with the largest single business being a 60,000-square-foot gro­cery store anchored on the north end of the property.

City Market continues to express inter­est in moving from its current Carbondale location over to the new site. Those nego­tiations are ongoing, but no commitments from City Market or any other prospective tenants have been reached, said Denver­based developer Rich Schierburg of Crys­tal River Marketplace, LLC.

In fact, the Planned Unit Development (PUD) application is purposely non-spe­cific in terms of actual tenants for the com­mercial/ retail portions of the develop­ment.

“The idea is to identify allowed uses and common themes, without speculating on market mix and plan detail at this time,” according to the application, which was submitted earlier this summer but was not deemed complete and ready for public review until late August. The development proposal is not yet scheduled for a public hearing.

The plan also includes up to 16,000 square feet of office space. But the big change from past proposals is that the new plan calls for a fair amount of residential development, including up to 280 town­houses/condominiums and 22 apart­ments/employee housing units.

It’s a far cry from the controversial Crys­tal River Marketplace proposal of 2003, which called for 230,000 total square feet of commercial development, including an unspecified 125,000-square-foot big-box retail anchor.

The Carbondale Town Council initially approved that plan, but citizens petitioned to take it to a referendum, and town voters overturned the decision.

Following that election, town trustees pulled together a group of citizens from both sides of what had been a rather con­tentious debate to form what became known as the Carbondale Economic Roadmap Group. The committee was charged with coming up with a blueprint for the town’s economic future.

“The committee, by consensus, felt that Carbondale’s character was worth pre­serving,” said Ro Mead, who co-chaired the Roadmap Group. “Carbondale is, was and will remain a vital community, and we simply felt that the big box did not fit into the character of this town.

“In fact, it would probably destroy what we love so much about it.”

According to the final report from the Roadmap Group issued two years ago, “We do not believe that our future is based upon competition with the variety of big box, comparison shopping that exists, and continues to expand, in Glenwood Springs and Rifle.

“While internal competition is appropri­ate, future development that is desirable is the type that supports and serves our exist­ing business community, our downtown, and the needs of our citizens.”

However, the report also seemed to leave the door open, if only just a little.

“We do recognize that there may be a niche anchor for our market positioning in the valley, provided it is consistent with our overall strategy,” the Roadmap report offered.

Even after Schierburg took over from the previous developer, Brian Huster, there remained talk of including a national retailer in the development plan.

Home Depot expressed serious interest in locating at the Marketplace site, offering to build “green” and downsize some from its typical store footprint to better match Carbondale’s scale.

After much discussion among Town Council members and citizens, the con­sensus came back around to holding steadfast with the findings and recom­mendations of the Roadmap Group, which was no big box.

“It’s a large format retailer with a huge parking lot and a business model that relies on bringing people to Carbondale from 100 miles away,” Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig said at a July 2007 meeting, referring to the Home Depot option.

“After all the efforts of the last couple of years to define an economic model for Carbondale, and then to favor the same [ big box] outcome, would seem to be a failure of imagination,” he said.

Schierburg was directed to come back with a plan for a mixed-used development, including a so-called “flex zone” in the middle portion of the property that could have, based on representations at the time, included anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent residential versus commercial.

The newly proposed plan calls for up to 55 percent com­mercial in the ground-level portions of that section. How­ever, it’s dependent on the market, Schierburg said.

“We had represented that at least 20 percent of ground level would be allocated to commercial,” he said. “Obvious­ly, we’ve exceeded that by quite a bit.”

The concept is to develop a series of buildings with retail uses on the ground floor and residential on the second floor. However, the market will dictate what occupies those build­ings, Schierburg said.

“Whatever is on the ground floor of those buildings drives the use,” he said. “So, if it’s part commercial and part resi­dential, it drops into the high 40 percent [commercial] range.”

The Village at Crystal River will not be a short-term build out either, as would likely have been the case with a big-box anchor. Instead, developers are figuring about an eight- to 10-year project.

“It’s the same thing I’ve said since day one,” Schierburg said. “Today, there’s no way the market will absorb that much commercial development right away. This is not a short-term development.”

The other trade-off is that a mixed-use development is expected to bring in less annual sales tax dollars to the town than a big-box retailer.

While estimates for the Home Depot would have gener­ated about $1.2 million a year for the town, the new propos­al projects about $590,000 in sales tax revenue, plus anoth­er $74,900 in property taxes for the town.

“An overall economic goal of The Village at Crystal River is to strengthen Carbondale’s economic development objectives and community sustainability by first serving the needs of local residents, [and] then the needs of visitors and destination shoppers from outside the immediate area,” according to the new development proposal.

One debate that’s likely to continue as the proposal makes its way into the public review process is the notion of eliminating some of the town’s limited stock of commer­cially-zoned property in favor of residential development.

As Schierburg pointed out at one of the public meetings last year as the various development options were being considered, “Once that land is gone to another use, it’s gone.”

The ongoing debate actually has roots that go back more than three decades to the mid-1970s when the property in question, then owned by the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, was zoned by the town government for commer­cial development.

It wasn’t until the independent college preparatory school decided to subdivide the highway frontage proper­ty from its sprawling campus and put it on the market in the late 1990s that the modern-day debate began.

But, according to former Carbondale mayor Randy Van­derhurst, there’s another piece of the historical puzzle that some people have forgotten.

“Basically, when the town approved River Valley Ranch, we knew that all those new residents were going to drive up demand for town services,” Vanderhurst said.

But, the idea was that commercial would follow residen­tial, he added.

“They did countless studies during that whole process, and one looked at the cost of infrastructure and how we would pay for that,” Vanderhurst said.

Various studies also had suggested that the town increase its property tax mill levy to help pay for those needs and services. However, the political reality was that voters were not likely to approve a property tax increase.

So, the fallback was to work to increase Carbondale’s sales tax base, Vanderhurst said. And, the biggest piece of commercially-zoned property in town, then and still today, is the Marketplace site.

“Retail development at Highway 133 and Main was what was looked to fill that need,” said Vanderhurst, who has supported more commercial development versus residen­tial on that site. ” That was the hope at the time we approved RVR.

“My concern is that now they’re adding more housing into the mix at a retail location,” he said.

Others maintain that that same line of thinking could make the upcoming hearings on The Village at Crystal Riv­er proposal predictably interesting ” perhaps even at the cost of reopening old doors.

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