Trading tax dollars for small-town charm in Carbondale
September 29, 2008
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.