Willits wants to convert retail space into residences in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Willits wants to convert retail space into residences in Basalt

Tim Belinski, right, a representative of the Willits Town Center owner, leads members of the Basalt Town Council and town staff on a tour Tuesday. Mariner wants to convert commercial space into residences in response to market demands.

The developer of Willits Town Center wants to build 74 more residences than currently allowed, largely in response to a chaotic retail scene and a glut of commercial development in the midvalley.

Mariner Real Estate Management asked the Basalt Town Council to approve amendments to its approvals that would allow converting unbuilt commercial space into residences.

"We really want to get the project done, and it's close," said Tim Belinski, the local representative for Mariner.

He said the market demand for commercial space has changed drastically since Willits Town Center was approved in 2001. Online shopping has jeopardized many brick-and-mortar brands, he said, and a glut of approved commercial space in the middle Roaring Fork Valley is affecting the mentality of potential tenants.

“We really want to get the project done, and it’s close.”

— Tim Belinski, Mariner representative

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The Eagle County commissioners in June approved the Tree Farm project across Highway 82 from Willits. The project includes almost 135,000 square feet of commercial space.

Belinski said prospective tenants shopping for retail, restaurant or office space understandably want to check out both developments before deciding where to locate.

"It comes up with just about every retail-restaurant prospect I talk to," he said.

Belinski stressed that the existing stores and restaurants are performing well. Traffic studies show there are about 14,000 vehicle trips per day in and out of Willits Town Center. Whole Foods has been the anchor that draws a substantial number of people.

"The core is healthy and alive and well," he said.

Plans also are in place for a performing arts center.

But there is unrented commercial space within the core and additional space approved on the outlying areas. A memo to the town said 272,000 square feet of commercial space has been constructed at Willits and about 25 percent remains vacant. Another 126,000 square feet of commercial space is approved but hasn't been built.

To put that in perspective, the building that houses Whole Foods Market, Bristlecone Sports, Basalt Bike and Ski and other businesses is 47,000 square feet.

Mariner wants flexibility to convert space and separate the pacing of the unconstructed residential and commercial space. Overall, the density would be reduced by about 5 percent to 563,000 square feet from the approved 591,000 square feet.

After a 90-minute hearing Tuesday night, the council decided to continue the discussion until the meeting Nov. 14. Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said the decision was too important to the community to rush it.

Basalt has already set a precedent for allowing Mariner to convert commercial space to residential. The ground floor of a 27-unit condominium complex completed this year was originally slated to be retail. That was converted to nine condos, which were purchased by the downvalley school district.

Work also is underway on the latest building at the intersection of Willits Lane and East Valley Road. That building was initially 70,000 square feet of commercial space. The town approved conversion to a three-story, 49-unit apartment complex with two detached commercial buildings.

The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission advised approval of Mariner's request, with numerous conditions.

scondon@aspentimes.com