Basalt sends good vibes to downtown developer
Basalt officials couldn’t resist sending a developer good vibes about her project Wednesday night while trying to avoid crossing the line of prejudging the plan.
Basalt Town Council and planning commission members took two straw polls indicating their support of alterations to a project called River Walk, a major development planned downtown.
Snowmass-area resident Frieda Wallison asked the Basalt officials for a memorandum of understanding stating that her proposal to significantly increase the size of the project would be acceptable.
Wallison explained she has a contract to buy the River Walk property on the northeast end of Midland Avenue, the town’s main street. Wallison hasn’t submitted an application to the town yet, but she wanted to gauge Basalt officials’ opinions of her plans before she decides whether to close the deal at the end of January.
The River Walk project would combine residences, offices, retail shops and restaurants at the vacant site where the old Wolfe Cabins were located. The site is along the Fryingpan River across Midland Avenue from St. Vincent Catholic Church.
The current owners had their application approved about 2 1/2 years ago, but they have been unable to build. “The original plan obviously isn’t working numbers-wise because it hasn’t been built,” said architect Glenn Rappaport, who is working on the new design along with architect Harry Teague.
Wallison said increasing the density from 43,000 to 70,000 square feet is vital for the economics of her projects. The economics need to be improved in order for her to attract investors, she indicated, thus she was looking for a written agreement on density.
But town officials warned they can’t make promises on issues like density. New Town Manager Tom Baker said no decisions could be made that bind the planning commission and Town Council. A project, he said, cannot be “prejudged.”
Wallison and her architects stressed that she just needed some indication of how the boards feel about the proposal before deciding whether to forge ahead with the purchase. That spurred another warning, this time from planning commission chairman Gary Wheeler.
“Can you not get an extension on your contract?” Wheeler asked, suggesting Wallison could then enter the process and formally gauge the boards’ reactions to her plan before deciding whether or not to buy.
“You’re putting the town in a real awkward position,” Wheeler said.
Wallison, who said she’s practiced law for 30 years, said it was awkward for her as well. She said the current River Walk owners have indicated they wouldn’t extend her contract.
Town planner Glenn Hartmann suggested that the Basalt boards might want to receive direction from town attorney Jody Edwards, who couldn’t attend the meeting, on what they could and couldn’t say about Wallison’s plans.
Officials appeared in agreement on that path before a final flurry of discussion. Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens cautioned Wallison that the review process could last up to 18 months, particularly if the proposal spurred a lot of public interest. He noted that issues like four rows of parking on a section of Midland Avenue and a proposed roundabout traffic device on Midland Avenue could prove controversial.
Other officials raised questions about affordable housing and building heights.
But after cautioning Wallison that the review process could produce unanticipated results, Stevens shifted gears and asked the Town Council and planning commission members for a “show of hands” on the project.
He first asked how many “reacted positively” to Wallison’s proposal compared to what was previously approved. He then asked if they felt Wallison’s proposal matched the direction they are going with a new “master plan” on future development of the town.
Both questions were answered unanimously in the positive by board members.
The Town Council and planning commission members spent about 40 minutes talking about the project before taking the straw poll. It was obvious that Wallison was pleased with the results.
Baker told The Aspen Times Thursday he didn’t think the boards prejudged the project by offering their limited advice. They merely told Wallison her proposal was a “reasonable direction to pursue,” he said.
“They have nothing that would give them reliance,” said Baker.
Town attorney Edwards said he didn’t think any promises were made, based on reports made to him about the meeting. “I don’t think the board gave her anything,” he said.
The show of hands didn’t constitute a reasonable expectation of approval for the project, according to Edwards.
When asked if a show of hands in preapplication meetings is common procedure for the Basalt boards, Edwards said it is not. There is no provision for preapplication meetings between developers and the Town Council or planning commission in the town code, according to Edwards. Preapplication conferences are typically just with the town staff.
From a purely legal sense, preapplication meetings with the Town Council possibly shouldn’t be held, Edwards said. However, he said developers are also a constituency to be accommodated.
“If [a preapplication meeting] can be accommodated without creating legal obligations, I don’t have a problem with that,” Edwards said. “Too many decisions are made on law rather than common courtesy.”
Stevens said Thursday that the affirmative show of hands “doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be successful. There’s zero reliance on a show of hands.”
He said Wallison’s project will go through a thorough public review process if an application is submitted.
“You pay your money on it and take your chances,” Stevens said.
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Development in Basalt barely skipped a beat in 2020 despite the coronavirus. It’s expected to be busier next year.