Basalt makes deal to end battle of Willits |

Basalt makes deal to end battle of Willits

Basalt has secured land for an arts center, transit center and government offices in a breakthrough settlement proposal with the developers of the biggest project in town.

The land was secured after months of negotiations with the developers of the Willits project. In return for the space for public amenities, Basalt negotiators agreed not to pare down the Willits proposal for 456,000 square feet of retail, restaurant, residential and office space. That would make the project one of the biggest in the midvalley – roughly 8 1/2 times larger than the El Jebel City Market.

The Willits site is located between City Market and the Midvalley Medical Clinic. Basalt has already approved 423 residences on the 30-acre property and now is contemplating what will be built in the town center.

The proposed settlement was negotiated by town staff and Willits owners Michael Lipkin, Clay Crossland and Paul Adams. It was approved by the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission last Thursday but still faces scrutiny by the Basalt Town Council, which will hold a special hearing Thursday, Nov. 30, at 6 p.m. in Basalt Town Hall.

`Put through the wringer’

The developers objected to the way their project was reviewed but not the final product, according to their attorney, Herb Klein. Town officials “put us through the wringers,” he said.

The commercial portion of Willits began the final stage of review in June 1998 but soon bogged down in negotiations that often resembled hand-to-hand combat.

The developers insisted throughout that time that the town had no legal grounds for paring down the square footage. The negotiated settlement suggests they were right.

Town attorney Jody Edwards said “everything was on the table” at one time during months of negotiations, including the square footage. “We went through 1,000 different packages,” he said.

In the end, Edwards claimed, lots of little details and a handful of significant ones add up to a “better project.”

Klein said he felt both sides made concessions to make a deal work.

“I hate to use the term win-win because it’s so overused,” said Klein.

Sales fund center

Klein noted that the developers surrendered a substantial amount of land for the public amenities. “These are city blocks. This is a lot of property,” he said.

In addition they agreed to a real estate transfer assessment which will raise funds from future sales. Those funds will be an endowment to build and maintain the arts center.

Edwards said that was a key component of the settlement. The funding for the arts center was patterned after an Aspen real estate transfer tax that helped renovate and now helps operate the Wheeler Opera House.

The developers were satisfied because they were allowed to keep the density they claim is necessary to make the project work. The agreement allows them to add a third floor to their buildings and, in the case of a proposed hotel, even a fourth floor.

Perhaps even more important from the developers’ standpoint, the three public facilities and affordable housing won’t apply toward the square footage cap.

Affordable housing compromise

The town and developers also settled a dispute over the amount of affordable housing that must be provided. The town had contended that its new housing code applied to Willits; the developers’ claimed it didn’t.

The issue appeared headed to court, but they compromised on 74 housing units. Half will be “live-work housing” that is restricted to people who own and operate commercial space in Willits, said Klein. The remainder will be the standard type of affordable housing “that we’ve all come to know and love,” he said.

Of the 456,000 square feet of development, about 100,000 square feet will be free-market residential.

Much of the negotiations that took place were over design issues. The extension of East Valley Road will become the development’s new main street. The emphasis in the commercial core will be on pedestrian-oriented development rather than strip mall-style, said Klein. To reach that goal, it will be laid out in a traditional grid.

If the proposal earns the Town Council’s approval, Klein said the developers would like to break ground next spring. The project would likely be phased in over a 10- to 15-year period, depending on the strength of the economy and competition from other projects, Klein said.

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