National developer buys into Willits
September 28, 2006
A national development firm based in the Chicago area paid $22 million earlier this month to buy into the Willits Town Center project in Basalt, according to public records.Joseph Freed and Associates LLC will share management of the project, according to Michael Lipkin, who has owned the property since 1989. Lipkin acquired approvals over a 12-year period and recently started developing the 10-block town core.Lipkin, an architect, said he will remain a partner in the project. “I just got a lot busier, that’s all,” he said. His firm, Lipkin-Warner, will continue to design the Willits Town Center.Lipkin’s former partners, longtime Basalt businessmen Clay Crossland and Paul Adams, retain an interest in the land but won’t play an active role in the development.The Willits Town Center is just upvalley from the El Jebel City Market.Lipkin said the $20 million was an “initial payment” and didn’t represent the entire, complex real estate deal. An affiliate of Joseph Freed and Associates called Mountain View Homes is also a partner in the project. Mountain View co-owner John Vanker will move to Willits and oversee day-to-day operations of the project, according to Lipkin.JFA was founded in 1965 and is now focusing on mixed-use projects that combine retail, residential and commercial space, according to its website. The firm boasts that it is one of only a few national real estate firms with the in-house expertise to tackle all types of development. The firm said it has $2 billion invested in mixed-use projects, 11 million square feet of commercial space and 5,500 residential units.The company has secured a $34 million construction loan to get started at Willits, according to documents filed with the Eagle County clerk’s office. Lipkin indicated the site soon will be hopping.”This allows use to move forward on several fronts at once,” he said.Since securing approvals in 2001, Lipkin has constructed three buildings. The Willits General Store and Alpine Bank buildings have operated for a couple of years. The Triangle Park Lofts – with retail shops and restaurants on the ground floor and 44 lofts on the second and third stories – will open around Thanksgiving.When it is completed, the Willits Town Center will dwarf downtown Basalt. Willits will have 250,000 square feet of retail, restaurant, office and entertainment space, and 400 condominiums and lofts, according to JFA’s website.The surrounding residential part of Willits will have about 550 residences when complete. This sale to JFA didn’t include the residential neighborhoods.The new partnership expects to break ground in October on the Market Street Lofts – a building similar to Triangle Park Lofts. Lipkin said construction likely will start next summer on a building featuring commercial on the ground floor and “a significant chunk” of resident-occupied housing and deed-restricted housing.Lipkin said the time had come for him to enlist a partner with the capability of overseeing the development, leasing space and selling residences. Lipkin said the JFA’s interest in the project reflects the strength of the real estate market throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, not just in Aspen. Several national firms were interested in buying into Willits, according to Lipkin. He said he selected JFA because of the quality of its projects and because he felt it was a good match with Basalt.Finding a partner will allow him to focus on design of the Town Center and development of a hotel and performing arts center that are part of the 10-block core.The preliminary plan is for a 100-room hotel that Lipkin labeled “3 1/2 or 4 star.” It will reflect Willits’ midvalley location.”We’re halfway between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, so it will be midway between a Holiday Inn Express and The Little Nell,” Lipkin said. It won’t necessarily be part of a chain, he said.The hotel complex will include a ballroom, conference space, a restaurant and a 12,000-square-foot health club that Lipkin envisions as a true gathering place for midvalley residents.Lipkin’s vision for the town center will remain intact, he said, although some adjustments to specific buildings may be sought. He expects no change in his plan for a mix of local and national businesses.And for everyone interested in knowing if he has landed a natural grocer, Lipkin says: “It’s only a matter of time.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.