Basalt P&Z wholly backs alteration for Whole Foods

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – Basalt’s effort to maintain a chance for construction of a Whole Foods Market got another boost Tuesday night.The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission voted 6-0 to recommend the Town Council pass an altered approval for the supermarket. The review is on a “fast track” because of a critical September deadline. Land-use approvals must be in place by early next month or Whole Foods can opt out of its contract to open a store at the Willits Town Center.The Basalt Town Council is scheduled to review the land-use alterations at meetings on Aug. 10 and Aug. 24.Whole Foods initially planned to build a 44,000-square-foot grocery store at Willits. That lease expired when developer Joseph Freed and Associates (JFA) lost its funding in September 2008 to finish the building.The parties renegotiated a lease for a space reduced to 25,000 square feet in March. The plan also hit a snag when Bank of America foreclosed on the project, contending that JFA defaulted on a $36 million loan. A foreclosure sale is scheduled Aug. 25, although JFA officials maintain they will work out a deal to retain the project.An Eagle County District Court judge appointed a receiver in April to oversee the project while the financial situation plays out. Cordes and Co. of Denver, the receiver, received permission from Bank of America to take the project through the Basalt land-use review process in an effort to keep the Whole Foods lease valid and retain the natural grocer as a potential anchor tenant. The project is worth more to Bank of America with Whole Foods signed as a tenant.The Planning and Zoning Commission’s vote Tuesday night advises the Town Council to make critical concessions to try to assure the supermarket gets built. The commission supported deferring construction of affordable housing tied to the Whole Foods building until later phases of the project. The developer won’t be off the hook for the housing.Other major concessions included:• An altered design for the smaller building. Planning commission members said the design is an improvement over the 44,000-square-foot proposal, but they urged architect David Warner to tweak the rear end of the building, which will face Highway 82.Commission member Craig Williams said the current design makes that side of the grocery look like the back of a mall.Commission chairman Bill Maron said every large building needs one side where “icky things happen,” but he agreed the view of the supermarket from the highway could be improved.”We expect a better level than most malls,” he quipped.• Specific conditions on construction management. The developer will be required to improve the appearance of the construction zone before getting a certificate of occupancy for the supermarket. Conditions were approved that require landscaping, removal of dirt and debris piles, and clearing of weeds and garbage.• The requirement for a roundabout at the intersection of Willits Lane and East Valley Road. Planning commission members said the traffic circle is needed. JFA representative Tim Belinski and Mike Staheli, the project manager for the receiver, argued in favor of a traffic signal rather than a roundabout. They said the extra expense for the roundabout, plus $910,000 pledged by Bank of America for a bus stop and pedestrian underpass below Highway 82, are too much of a burden to be tied to one building.They cited prior studies which showed traffic at the intersection would be at a level “C” with the stoplight, on a scale with “A” being the best. Maron said that isn’t a good thing.”Realistically, ‘C’ level of service really sucks,” he said. It’s like East Colfax Avenue in Denver, he added. Drivers might wait two or three cycles to get through the light. Planning commissioners were also concerned that traffic could be stacked back into Highway 82.While the planning commission favors a roundabout, they dodged discussion on how to pay for the improvement. Staheli and Belinski said the added cost could be a deal breaker. The commission decided payment options are for the Town Council to debate.Even if the issue gets ironed out, Staheli cautioned that there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the project. The public sector could clear a path for the grocery story, but the recession could still sink the deal.”It’s not a given this project is back on its feet,” Staheli said.

Residents and business owners at Willits Town Center are urging Basalt to approve changes to the Whole Foods building in hopes that it “jump-starts” the stalled project and makes it a more vibrant place to live and work.The board of directors at Triangle Park Lofts in Willits submitted a letter to the town government prior to Tuesday night’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to voice support for approval of the Whole Foods building.Triangle Park Lots was the first major building completed at Willits Town Center. It was finished before financing dried up for developer Joseph Freed and Associates. Construction stalled in September 2008 while the developer was working on a building for natural grocer Whole Foods Market. The grocery store was envisioned as the anchor tenant that would help the development thrive.The Triangle Park Lofts include popular restaurants like Bee’s Bistro, Smoke and Korita’s, as well as retail shops on the first floor and residences above.The letter from the building tenants said the lack of activity at Willits has forced some stores to close and makes it tough on the survivors because of the lack of traffic.”As a Homeowners Association, we still believe that the original vision is both desirable and achievable,” the letter says. “But it cannot happen without the continuing development of Willits.”Construction of Whole Foods is the beginning of the process that will eventually produce the living and business environment we signed up for when we bought our places,” the letter continues. “We realize that Whole Foods is not an end in itself, but we anticipate, with the developer, that it will jump-start the development of Willits that will lead to a more dynamic, desirable environment in which to live and do business.”Another letter from a resident of the adjacent building, the Market Street Lofts, expressed concern about the “horrid” conditions around the Willits Town Center since construction stalled.”The property is truly a disgrace right now, with codes in violation, rotting construction materials, empty job trailers, weeds, garbage, swirling dust, and other environmental hazards,” Andrew Lizotte wrote in a letter entered into the official record at the P&Z meeting Tuesday.”The developer seems to show no interest in restoring the property; it appears that they are even allowing one corner of the property to be used by someone else as a gravel pit,” Lizotte’s letter continues. “The residents are demanding the construction debris be moved, the dirt pits be filled in, and a park or other landscaping be put in place.”Another resident of the Market Street Lofts urged town officials to put conditions on any alteration of project approvals to require the property be cleaned up if construction stalls again or once it is