Basalt council members open to ‘compromise’ on Willits retail issue
The majority of Basalt Town Council members signaled Tuesday night that they are willing to compromise with the developer of Willits Town Center on adjusting the mix of commercial and residential development.
Mariner Real Estate Management wants to build more residential units and reduce commercial space by about 100,000 square feet in the unbuilt portion of the development anchored by Whole Foods.
Council members gave their first indication during an informal discussion Tuesday that they would be willing to allow conversion of some of the space, though maybe not all Mariner is seeking.
“I think we can work with them on some type of compromise that works for the town and the developer,” Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said.
He said he’s liked the slow pace of development at Willits over the past 16 years. However, a compromise on the remaining commercial and residential space helps “get this moving,” he said.
Mariner said it needs to convert some of its commercial to residential space because the retail picture has changed so drastically since Willits was approved in 2001. Brick-and-mortar stores are falling prey to online retailers.
The final phase of the development includes three buildings along Willits Lane, another on the south side of the development and a small space tucked between Element Hotel and Whole Foods. Mariner wants to retain commercial in several of those buildings, but reduce the overall amount as well as individual spaces.
Bruce Kimmel of Ehlers LLC, the town’s outside financial consultant, suggested the council consider a compromise that reduces the retail that Mariner must build but jumpstarts construction on the final phase of the project and preserves the ability to mix in commercial uses.
“If it were up to me, I’d want to find ways to get it built out as soon as possible,” Kimmel said. “Now the question is how best to complete it.”
Kimmel suggested an option that would allow Mariner to build about 36,000 square feet more of residential space than currently approved and reduce retail space from 103,000 square feet to about 60,000 square feet. The developer would have the option of building another 68,000 square feet as service and office space rather than retail.
Councilman Mark Kittle said he liked the balance of Kimmel’s proposal.
Mariner representative Tim Belinski said the company is open to compromise.
“A different number is fine. We’ll keep on working on the ratio,” he said.
One reason for concern among some town officials and the developer is potential competition from Ace Lane’s Tree Farm project across Highway 82 from Whole Foods. Lane secured approvals from Eagle County this year for as much as 340 residences and 135,000 square feet of commercial space. The Tree Farm has highway frontage that could attract retailers and other commercial tenants. Basalt opposed the development because of competition with projects in the town and the alleged effect it will have on midvalley services.
“It defies all urban planning rules — spread out on the road like a large stop-and-go,” Councilman Bernie Grauer said.
He said he would be willing to consider converting some of the remaining approvals for commercial development to residential for the benefit of Willits in light of competition and a changing retail landscape.
Councilman Auden Schendler said he believes there is a legitimate legal challenge facing the Tree Farm. A group of citizens filed a lawsuit against Eagle County contending the approval of the Tree Farm didn’t follow proper procedures and violated the land-use code. The legal battle is just gearing up.
Schendler said he doesn’t want to overreact by converting too much of the retail space at Willits because it “feels a little bit like hot-boxing because the Tree Farm is coming in, and I’m not sure it is coming in.”
The council didn’t vote on converting retail to residential space but instead continued the hearing until Jan. 9.
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The crises between January 2009 and Tuesday, when he stepped down from the Pitkin County board, have bookended a political career that Newman said he thinks lived up to the slogan on the yard sign from his first campaign he still keeps in his garage: “Preserve, Conserve, Collaborate.”