Basalt faces test of new affordable housing rules
It didn’t take long for Basalt’s tough new affordable housing regulations to face their first test.The developer of what will probably be the last large downtown project is seeking a variance from the town government’s affordable housing requirements.Freida Walison of Snowmass said forcing her to build all the employee housing required in the town code would make her Riverwalk project “uneconomical.”Riverwalk is a mixed-used project proposed by Walison’s Caddis Fly Partners LLC, across Midland Avenue from St. Vincent Catholic Church. Walison has proposed to build about 77,000 square feet of residences, offices, restaurants and retail shops.She is proposing to amend approvals that have already been granted on the site – approvals that many town officials regret they granted. Walison’s reworked plan has generally received glowing reviews from elected officials and members of the public, but the affordable housing shortfall emerged as one blemish Tuesday night at a Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.”Six (affordable housing units) is not enough. I don’t know the right number,” said P&Z chairman Gary Wheeler. `Unsustainable burden’ The town code requires Walison to build between 10 and 12 housing units, according to the Riverwalk application. Walison is asking to pare that down to six.”Allocation of space along Midland Avenue for retail use is economically risky for a developer and the assignment of affordable housing requirements to that space results in an unsustainable burden,” Walison’s application said. “These requirements also tend to lessen the general affordability of space in the project.”Walison is seeking approval to build between 24 and 35 free-market housing units as part of Riverwalk. She is seeking flexibility in case the demand for office space proves to be greater. In that case, she would build fewer free-market residences.But paring down the amount of affordable housing raised a red flag among some planning commissioners and members of the public. It could also be a tough sell with the Town Council.The planning commission and Town Council just put the finishing touches on a new town master plan last month. That master plan, which took 2 1/2 years to create, highlights efforts to preserve Basalt’s housing mix and create new affordable housing.Planning commissioner Jonathan Fox-Rubin told Walison he would need more financial data to understand her point about the affordable housing creating an unsustainable burden.Basalt resident Stephanie Kettler stressed that the affordable housing units should truly be affordable for Basalt workers.”I get scared of that word,” Kettler said, referring to affordable. “So far it’s been a joke in every town in this valley.”She noted that so-called affordable housing goes for as much as $400,000 in Aspen. Praise and problems Riverwalk received a fair share of praise and a nearly equal amount of criticism at a P&Z meeting attended Tuesday by about 25 members of the public.Speakers credited it with creating commercial and residential density downtown where it belongs. The proposal also earned accolades for pulling development back from the Fryingpan River, enhancing the river’s edge and providing public access with trails and a park. Walison’s team – architects Harry Teague and Glenn Rappaport – were singled out for a creative design.Walison’s proposal, said Teague, “is not just the lesser of evils, but a plan that will actually enhance the town of Basalt.”But critics said it has its flaws. Creating even more concern than affordable housing was the parking. Walison wants to form a partnership with the town government that would allow use of public right of way for parking adjacent to her project.A proposal to creating a parking island in the middle of Midland Avenue, between the Catholic church and Riverwalk, raised eyebrows. The wisdom of creating parking on the east end of the property, along Riverside Drive, was also questioned.The planning commissioners said they want to explore issues such as housing, parking and density in greater detail. The next public hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 5.
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