5. Michael Lipkin, the face of Willits and Whole Foods market | AspenTimes.com

5. Michael Lipkin, the face of Willits and Whole Foods market

Aspen Times Weekly file

The saga of Willits Town Center and a proposed Whole Foods Market in 2007 was about as close to a soap opera as a land-use matter can get. And the central character was Michael Lipkin.

Lipkin found himself going from hero to goat in less than a month late in the spring. He was riding high when the long-anticipated announcement was made May 10 that Whole Foods would open one of its supermarkets featuring natural and organic products at Willits. It was a sweet taste of success for Lipkin after 18 years of difficult and often frustrating efforts to get his project approved, refined and marketed.

Less than one month later, Lipkin claimed Whole Foods would come only if additional residences were added to the dense village core. The project already had approvals for about 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space. Lipkin wanted 85,000 additional feet for high-end condominiums and lofts.

Lipkin repeated the claim verbally and in writing to the Basalt Town Council on June 5. Two days later, a representative of Whole Foods contradicted the developer and said no such demand for additional residences was made by the grocery chain. Whole Foods signed a contract to develop at Willits Town Center, he said, additional residences or not.

Lipkin apologized to the council and community later that month and explained he made “an honest mistake” by categorizing the extra residences as a requirement by Whole Foods. He acknowledged the residences weren’t a condition of the lease, but a requirement for the developers to offset additional costs they were incurring to accommodate the store.

The apology seemed to be accepted. The town staff supported the additional residences, along with adjustments to the approval to provide a 44,000-square-foot space for Whole Foods, and the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission signed off. But after an initial endorsement, and a public outcry, the Town Council pulled an about-face in October.

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Throughout much of the process, Lipkin remained the primary spokesman for Willits Town Center even though he sold his ownership interest in 2006 to a Chicago-based development powerhouse, Joseph Freed and Associates. But as the issue progressed through the fall, Joseph Freed and Associates’ local representative, Tim Belinski, started speaking more and Lipkin less at the council meetings.

Freed and Associates announced in November that it would separate its request for the Whole Foods space from the request for more residences. The move paid off ” the final approval needed for Whole Foods was granted by the council Dec. 11. The extra residences will be reviewed in February.

Belinski recently described Lipkin as a partner in the development team even if he is no longer an owner at Willits Town Center. He said Lipkin will continue to play a vital role turning the Willits vision into reality. Lipkin Warner Design and Planning is also the architect for the buildings in the village core.

scondon@aspentimes.com