Project at old Pan and Fork site in Basalt gains critical vote

The site plan for the Basalt River Park project shows how development would be focused on the western end of the property near Rocky Mountain Institute. About one acre on the eastern end will be added to the riverside park.
Courtesy image

The Basalt River Park development at the former Pan and Fork site moved to within one step of final approval Tuesday night.

The Basalt Town Council voted 7-0 to approve the first readings of three ordinances that clear the path for the project. A second reading and public hearing was scheduled for Feb. 25. Informal plans have been kicked around for the site near downtown Basalt for almost a decade. A development group headed by Tim Belinski turned in an application last year that gained traction. Mayor Jacque Whitsitt called it a compromise in a split community.

Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said the long community debate was worth it.

“This property has been the key piece of downtown. We wanted to do it right,” he said.

Despite the unanimous votes, some council members still feel the project isn’t exactly right. Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said the project proposes a “massive amount of non-affordable housing.”

The proposal calls for 24 residences of various sizes. Four of them are rent-capped affordable housing. Belinski said the small size would control prices of other residences and prevent a “McMansion kind of thing.”

Schwoerer countered that the town should have pressed for more affordable housing on the site since a mobile home park that provided a couple hundred beds of de facto affordable housing was removed from the site.

The current proposal is “an affront to what this property once was,” Schwoerer said. “(The free-market units) are unattainable for the people that make this community run.”

Councilman Auden Schendler said he would prefer not to see free-market housing on the site, but the council majority has made it clear they wouldn’t go for high-density development necessary to make affordable housing work.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he said to Schwoerer. “You can’t say, ‘I don’t want free market and I don’t want density.’”

A prior council put a question to voters in 2016 to buy the entire 2.3 acres so it could decide what gets built. Voters rejected the purchase.

“The reality is our community said, ‘No, we’re not going to buy that parcel,’” Whitsitt said. Therefore, the council had no choice but to compromise.

“Everybody at the table didn’t get what they wanted,” she said.

But parts of the project attracted considerable support. The Art Base will buy a 6,000-square-foot space for its new home. The town will buy nearly 1 acre of vacant land for $1.34 million for expansion of an existing park along the Roaring Fork River. The plan also includes a 3,000-square-foot restaurant prominently placed by the park and 11,500 square feet of office space, primarily in small, affordable sizes.

The project will total about 56,000 square feet of residential, commercial and nonprofit space. Development will be pushed to the western side of the property, closest to Rocky Mountain Institute’s office. The additional parkland is at the intersection of Two Rivers Road and Midland Avenue.

Belinski called the project a “missing link” between downtown and the headquarters of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute and Roaring Fork Conservancy.

John Black, president of the Art Base board of directors, urged the council to make the project a reality after so many years of debate.

“We all know how many years this has been,” he said. “You all have gone through years of this. I think it’s proof that the effort is worth it.”

He said the Art Base’s future home would make the community proud and the project as a whole will provide the vitality many in Basalt desire.

“This is it. This is what we want for our town,” Black said.

The application was in danger of facing delays. Councilwoman Jennifer Riffle made a motion to continue the first reading of the three ordinances, which would have required at least one extra meeting. Her motion failed 5-2.

However, several council questions will still need to be addressed when the review is scheduled to resume Feb. 25. The big issue is phasing. The restaurant could be delayed for up to seven years under a plan proposed by Belinski’s team. The council was unanimous in wanting to see it sooner and reserved time at the next meeting to hash out the issue.

Belinski said construction probably cannot begin until spring 2021. The free-market housing is the first phase because it provides revenue to keep the project moving.

“We are very confident, indeed, that the whole thing can work,” Belinski said.