Willits hotel needs to clear two hurdles
February 6, 2014
The Basalt Town Council approved a "pre-development agreement" with a developer Tuesday night over a proposed hotel at Willits Town Center, but it was clear that issues associated with the project are dividing the board.
Mariner Real Estate Management, the owner of the project, has created a joint venture with hotel developers and managers Ed Mace and Charlie Peck, of Eagle, with the intent of building a 113-unit hotel at Willits. They have received a letter of intent from lodging industry titan Starwood to build a hotel in the Elements by Westin brand, a limited-service, extended-stay property, Mace said. The hotel is expected to draw heavily on tourist traffic to the Roaring Fork Valley.
The pre-development agreement isn't binding on the town or developer, but it spells out the responsibilities of the parties. "It's essentially a road map to get things started," said Town Attorney Tom Smith.
Members of the council and Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission gave generally favorable comments about the concept of the hotel in the southeast portion of the project. It has high visibility from Highway 82 and is located a block or so away from Whole Foods Market.
However, Mariner's request to delay construction of affordable housing and to use property owned by the town government for private parking spurred mixed opinions. Mariner also is asking the town to spend an undetermined amount to create the parking lot and landscaping for the hotel.
"I think it's very exciting to have a hotel like this in our community," Councilman Glenn Rappaport said. "I don't want to get trapped in the minutiae."
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Mariner has an obvious track record of doing what is necessary to make Willits Town Center a successful development, Rappaport said. That makes him inclined to help by providing the land for the hotel parking, he indicated. Rappaport said he believes the residents of Basalt would support his stance.
Councilman Herschel Ross countered that he couldn't support providing the land for the hotel parking lot and spending taxpayer money to build it. Town residents wouldn't be pleased, he claimed.
"I can smell the tar and feathers from here," Ross said.
Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Bernie Grauer added that he was wary of giving up the property for a private parking lot when public parking is needed at a bus stop at Willits.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said she has received a significant number of calls from people who want the commuter parking resolved before Mariner gets a green light for the hotel.
"Both the parking and the housing have to be nailed down for the benefit of the public," Whitsitt said.
But Councilman Rick Stevens said there was never any promise by Basalt to provide commuter parking in the Willits commercial core so people living in Missouri Heights could catch the bus. Downtown Basalt already gets overwhelmed with commuter vehicles that make it tough for shoppers to find parking, he claimed.
Councilwoman Karin Teague disagreed with Stevens and said Basalt should help provide commuter parking — and assisting the effort to get people into buses — whenever possible.
"I'm not going to be good with giving up all our parking," she said.
The affordable housing spurred a separate debate. Development at Willits has reached a trigger point that requires construction of a fraction of the affordable-housing requirement. Mariner wants to buy time to enlist a potential financial partner — Denver Archdiocesan Housing — for a project that would exceed its affordable-housing requirements.
David Schoenberger, one of the few residents to offer comments on the project, said the hotel would be a good addition to the town, but he urged the council to tie approval to a definitive plan for affordable housing.
Ross agreed that the hotel and affordable housing should proceed in "lock step."
The council approved the pre-development agreement without resolving the parking and housing issues. They will be debated in future meetings.
Rappaport attempted to get the board and planning commission to go beyond the pre-development agreement and give a "head nod" that a 113-room hotel was appropriate on the site proposed by Mariner. He kept pressing the point but the group was unwilling to provide the nod.
Immediately after the meeting, Grauer angrily accused Rappaport of trying to "bully" the other decision-makers into following his lead. Grauer said other people have equally strong opinions but that they show respect when others express differences. Rappaport attempted to calm Grauer down, but he walked away.