Basalt crowd, council urge developer to rework hotel plan
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
The Basalt Town Council listened for more than two hours Tuesday night to impassioned pleas for and against a proposal by Lowe Enterprises to build a downtown hotel and condominium project.
Tracy Bennett, owner of a main street shoe store for 21 years, said Basalt has spent too much time pondering how to increase vitality and too little time acting. Meanwhile, business are relocating to Willits Town Center or closing. “I just don’t know how much we can hold on here — the merchants,” she said.
Willits resident Jae Gregory matched Bennett’s passion by questioning why a hotel and condos were automatically being counted on to provide the vitality downtown Basalt seeks. If more diners and shoppers are the vitality people seek, there’s no guarantee the hotel and condos will produce, she said.
Gregory said she witnessed from living in Willits that what spurs vitality is a “big-ass anchor tenant.” After Whole Foods Market opened in Willits, diners and shoppers materialized, people walked and rode bikes from the residential neighborhoods to the commercial core and other stores opened.
She said Basalt should follow a different strategy to spur downtown activity. “Spend a million dollars attracting Trader Joes,” she said, referring to the popular grocery chain.
Gregory was particularly critical of the condominiums in Lowe’s plan. She said a recent community survey commissioned by the town said only 6.9 percent of respondents wanted high-end condominiums at the former Pan and Fork site, where Lowe wants to build.
“Why the frick are high-end condos even on the running board?” she asked.
Basalt resident Tripp Adams agreed that a hotel won’t guarantee vitality. Basalt needs a reason for people to be attracted to town to stay in a hotel, he said.
Adams urged the council to get creative and seek inventive ways to attract people to Basalt.
An estimated 150 people squeezed into the meeting room at Basalt Regional Library for the hearing. Scores were standing against the back walls and a long line ran into the lobby. Both sides were well represented, but as the hearing chugged along, it became apparent that a majority of the crowd favored limited development and more of the Pan and Fork site left open.
Emma resident and Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman said Basalt has a unique opportunity to create a special open space along the Roaring Fork River. He urged town residents to look closely at how Snowmass Village has stumbled for more than six years to get a big development on track after it was derailed in the recession. He cautioned against following Aspen’s path of allowing bigger buildings for the sake of urban infill.
If Basalt approves the project as proposed, it will find access to the river disappear, he predicted. Newman said “eye balls open up” with amazement when a project goes from paper to brick. People are surprised how big a project is once built.
Several audience members urged the town to require Lowe to mark the boundaries of the proposal buildings on the ground and use pole to show the heights. Three buildings are contemplated.
Three people in their 30s — younger than the vast majority of audience members — urged the council to move slow and keep long-term sustainability in mind. One of the three, Jen Riffle, said the Willits part of Basalt is growing and getting “Front Rangy.” She advocated keeping “Old Town Basalt” mellower.
Several comments were made in favor of the project. Norm Clasen noted that a River Master Plan completed by Basalt about 20 years ago called for a riverfront park with development on the street-side of the Pan and Fork site. Basalt needs to take action on that recommendation.
“For all those people that say go slow, that’s about as slow as you can go,” Clasen said.
Resident Tom Baker, not the former town manager, said the town should embrace the development. “We have plenty of open space,” he said. “This is a beautiful plan the way it is now.”
Plan proponent Kathleen Cole submitted a petition she said was signed by about 240 people or businesses in favor of the project.
Proposal foe Mark Kwiecienski submitted a petition signed by about 120 people that support a bigger park. He said signatures were only gathered since Sunday, so the petition didn’t reflect full support.
Nobody on either side of the debate mentioned the possibility of a formal vote on the project though Town Manager Mike Scanlon said prior to the meeting it had been mentioned by proponents as a possibility.
— by Scott Condon
Basalt residents and elected officials delivered a strong message Tuesday night that Lowe Enterprises must alter its development proposal for the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park site.
During more than two hours of public testimony, a majority of residents expressed support for keeping a significant part of the site open to provide access to the Roaring Fork River. Slightly more than half of the site is being developed as a riverfront park by the town government. The other half, closest to Two Rivers Road, is being considered for development. Lowe Enterprises, a development firm with strong ties to Aspen and Snowmass Village, proposed to build a 60-unit boutique hotel with 12 affiliated condominiums that would have hotel services and 40 free market condos.
Lowe hasn’t submitted a formal plan, yet, but wanted to get comment from the public and elected officials to determine its next step.
An estimated 150 people packed the Basalt Regional Library to speak their mind on the proposal. Untold others were stacked outside the meeting room. Many speakers urged the council not to sacrifice open space for condominiums that won’t necessarily generate vitality in downtown Basalt. Some critics said they could live with a small hotel; others said keep the entire property open or allow only modest development.
The support for a park wasn’t unanimous. At least a third of the speakers expressed support for the project (See The Aspen Times online edition for audience comments).
The council was thinking along the same lines as the audience, with the majority urging the developer to make changes.
Councilman Gary Tennenbaum credited Lowe with helping the community cut to the chase with its proposal. He said the property is important because it’s the only downtown property in the Roaring Fork Valley that sits right on a river.
“This is our last shot at doing it right. I don’t want to rush our last shot,” Tennenbaum said.
He stressed that the riverfront park is important, and any uses on the other half of the property must be compatible. The hotel could work, he said, if it was shifted toward the building being constructed by Rocky Mountain Institute and more of the overall site was left open.
“The way it’s done now, I’m not going to be supportive of,” he said.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt also expressed strong support for keeping as much of the site as possible as a park. She said the community debate is already spurring new ideas and will result in a better project.
“Just saying ‘yes’ to the first suitor that comes along” isn’t the best policy, she said.
Residents have expressed support to her for preserving small-town character and promoting open space and trails, she said. She supports uses compatible with the park.
Councilman Mark Kittle warned that a park on the entire site might not generate enough vitality since a park wouldn’t be used all year. “My thought is we need balance of some type,” he said.
He expressed support for a smaller lodge, possibly geared toward anglers. He wouldn’t support a building that is three or four stories high. The proposal is for a fourth story stepped back from the third floor to ease the massing.
“The condos I definitely didn’t agree with. We definitely need to rethink that,” he said.
If Lowe Enterprises doesn’t want to proceed in the direction the town wants to go, the town should solicit ideas from as many developers that want to toss in an idea, Kittle said.
Councilman Herschel Ross expressed the most support for the project. He said something more than a park must be built to rejuvenate downtown. “The vacant spaces are really disturbing,” he said. “Bringing people downtown is important.”
He stressed that the town must continue working with Lowe.
Councilman Bernie Grauer said he supports some level of development, but a hotel must be “right-sized” for the special setting. He noted that only 30 percent of respondents to a town-commissioned survey said they would support a fourth story on buildings at the Pan and Fork site.
Councilman Rob Leavitt said he feared the condos would sit empty. He wants more of the Pan and Fork site that’s being examined for development left open for visual and physical open space as it is approached from downtown. He supports slowing the process down to come up with a plan that satisfies the greatest number of people possible.
Councilman Rick Stevens wasn’t at the meeting.
The elected officials said they hope Lowe Enterprises will continue to explore options. Some expressed interest in trading land at the former recycle center project and Lions Park with Lowe to reduce development on the Pan and Fork.
Lowe Enterprises will assess the direction and the sides will determine how to proceed with negotiations.
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