Basalt council: Easy does it at Willits | AspenTimes.com

Basalt council: Easy does it at Willits

The core of Willits Town Center is developed, with Whole Foods as an anchor. A performing arts center is planned in the lower left. The developer hopes to tweak plans to blocks 4 and 9 on the left side and block 11 on the bottom.

Some members of the Basalt Town Council aren't as concerned as a developer that it's taking so long to complete construction of Willits Town Center, where Whole Foods is located.

Development firm Mariner Real Estate Management says it cannot build all of the commercial space that's been approved at the midvalley project, so it wants to convert some of it to residences. It has applied to build 74 additional free-market housing units and subtract as much as 100,000 square feet of commercial. The conversion, Mariner representative Tim Belinski said, would help Mariner "wrap up" the project.

Not so fast, Council members said Tuesday night.

"It's not our job to get it wrapped up," said Mayor Jacque Whitsitt.

Mariner should consider making the project smaller and leaving some areas open, she said. She acknowledged that retail isn't as viable anymore as it once was, so she understands why Mariner is seeking alternatives.

Councilwoman Jennifer Riffle said the Roaring Fork Valley is still a small, rural area that "isn't really for an Anywhere USA development."

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"What this valley does appreciate is growing slow and smart," Riffle said.

Like Whitsitt, she suggested a slow pace of growth isn't a bad idea.

Belinski said Basalt hasn't been spared from a national phenomenon labeled the "retail apocalypse" where brick-and-mortar stores are falling prey to online shopping. National chains were viable tenants when Willits Town Center was originally approved in 2001, but not so much anymore, Belinski said.

The development firm believes separating commercial spaces from residential, not tying the timing of construction together and reducing the size of commercial spaces is the best route to go as well as converting some of the commercial space to residential.

Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer noted that just two years ago Mariner successfully convinced the council in office at the time that it should be allowed to add 91,000 square feet of commercial space. Mariner argued at the time that it needed to create a critical mass of retail space for the overall development to thrive.

That plan didn't work so well. Belinski said Tuesday that Willits Town Center has about 70,000 square feet of constructed commercial space that hasn't been rented. (However, he did say a new restaurant signed a lease last week for a space between Mezzaluna and Capitol Creek Brewery. Details will soon be released.)

Belinski said additional retail, office and service space is still part of the plan.

"It's close to becoming a shopping destination but it's not there yet," he said.

Councilman Bernie Grauer said he believes Willits is coming along nicely and that Mariner shouldn't give up on its 2015 vision for more retail.

"My general feeling is optimism not pessimism," he said. While there are national "headwinds" that make it difficult to build retail, Grauer said Willits could buck those trends and build off its success.

He said he would be willing to consider conversion of some amount of commercial space to residential, but not as much as Mariner is seeking.

"These are massive, what you're asking, and it overwhelmed me," he said.

Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said he is willing to "play with this more" to find the right mixture of remaining commercial and residential space. His primary concern, he said, is creating a "livable" project rather than one that Mariner can complete as quickly as possible. A slow phasing of the project isn't necessarily bad, he said.

"I look at Willits as a success in managed growth," Tennenbaum said.

Councilman Auden Schendler was most receptive to Mariner's request.

"I'm sympathetic to this failure of commercial," he said.

If there is a limited demand for commercial space and Willits surrenders some of it, that might create more demand downtown, Schendler said.

Approving Mariner's request to convert commercial to residential space would have financial implications for the town. Bruce Kimmel, the town's independent financial adviser, performed a study that shows the town would reap $1.22 million in sales and property taxes annually at build-out if Mariner stuck to the 2015 approvals, with a heavy concentration of retail space.

The tax revenue would plummet to $655,000 under Mariner's conversion plan, Kimmel said. The lower amount would result from less retail space and lower property tax rates on residential space.

The council didn't make any decision on Mariner's request. It requested more information from its staff and continued the meeting to Nov. 28.

scondon@aspentimes.com

IN OTHER ACTION

In other action taken by the Basalt Town Council Tuesday night:

* An application for a medical marijuana center at 175 Midland Ave. was approved 4-0 with two abstentions and one absence. The approval was granted to Down Valley HYH and owners Kale Lacroux and Justin Streeb. The council majority ruled that the owners were of “good moral character despite two past convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol for Lacroux and one for Streeb. The DUI incidents occurred several years ago. Councilwomen Katie Schwoerer and Jennifer Riffle followed their pattern of abstaining on votes for marijuana operations. They have previously expressed opposition to Basalt allowing pot shops.

* The council voted 6-0 to approve a three-year lease at the former Basalt library building, adjacent to town hall, for the Art Base. The community arts center will pay $12,000 annually. The Art Base currently doesn’t pay any rent.

* The council endorsed going to bid for fabrication and installation of a new sign for the business and residential area south of Highway 82, across from downtown. The sign will be headed by “Basalt” and an image of fish with “Business Center” and “Southside” on lower lines. It will be placed near the intersection of Highway 82 and Basalt Avenue. The sign is estimated to cost $42,800 but officials are hoping for a favorable bid.

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