Snowmass council eyeing next stage for Base Village | AspenTimes.com

Snowmass council eyeing next stage for Base Village

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Base Village proposal from Intrawest and the Aspen Skiing Co. has entered a new phase in the approval process.

Town staff last week presented a draft resolution for the Town Council to review that would grant sketch, or conceptual, approval to the plan.

The legislative document to now be shaped by the council will soon be the defining document in the development of Base Village, which is the single biggest proposal in the resort’s history.

If the project is approved at the sketch level, as is anticipated by the town, Intrawest and the Skico, the next step is for the applicants to submit a much more detailed “preliminary” application.

What approval at the sketch plan level does, essentially, is give an applicant the right to go to the next stage. And the magic words are in the draft resolution: “The Town Council hereby authorizes the submission of a Preliminary Plan application for the Base Village Planned Units Development …”

But many of the key issues facing the project ? whether it is too big and too tall, whether it will be connected to the Snowmass Center with a gondola, whether it will actually attract frequent visitors to stay in oft-rented new condos ? are likely to remain substantially unanswered until the next stage of the approval process.

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But that is how the town’s three-stage review process is set up.

“My understanding of sketch plan is to shake the branches and get those key issues on the ground,” said Dick Virtue, a Snowmass Village councilman. “Then, it becomes their choice to go forward to the next stage.”

For example, the current draft resolution states that the size and scope of the project “… cannot be fully evaluated at this time because the overall economics, height, mass and scale issues should be considered concurrently when more information is submitted at the time of Preliminary PUD review.”

And that essentially goes for other key issues such as transportation, traffic, parking and employee housing. So while Intrawest may soon win sketch plan approval, it still has a potentially high hurdle in front of it.

“The problem with sketch plan is that it doesn?t require a number of items to be decided on,” said Councilman Arnold Mordkin. “And for that reason, those items could end up being fatal flaws.” And he has pointed out recently that some decisions, such as granting a height variance, will require a four-fifth’s “super majority” vote of the board.

But Mordkin said the sketch plan part of the process has been beneficial to other recent proposals in Snowmass Village, including the Snowmass Chapel and the Snowmass Center.

“They both provided a lot of material and came away with a very, very good sense of where we as a Town Council were willing to support should they decide they wanted to go there,” he said. “For those groups, it probably was very beneficial.”

Intrawest Vice President Paul Shepherd recognizes that the sketch plan doesn’t give the company anything it can take to the bank, but he said it can be a valuable process.

“It is a way to know if this thing is going to work or not and to determine if the town has any strong feelings one way or the other on specific issues,” Shepherd said in an interview about the process last month. “Sketch gives you a greater probability that your preliminary application will have fewer issues to address.”

And while the next “preliminary” stage in the process also does not grant final approval on a project, it is a big enough step that developers have felt confident in breaking ground on a project.

For example, the Skico started moving dirt around on the renovation of the Snowmass Club golf course after preliminary approval, and ended up continuing to shape the project in the “final” approval stage.

And Intrawest and the Skico hope to break ground on the building in the spring. As Don Schuster, the Skico’s vice president of real estate development, told the board of the Snowmass Village Resort Association recently, “We’re planning this thing is going to happen.”

The Base Village project is significant, both in terms of the council’s hope that it will revitalize a struggling Snowmass Village resort, and also in its size and complexity. And the draft resolution from the town’s planning staff seeks to not only clarify what the project is, but also what issues will be mostly dealt with at the next stage.

The project is calling for 683 residential units spread out over the base of the Fanny Hill and Assay Hill trails at the bottom of the Snowmass Ski Area. Today, there are about 1,500 condos in Snowmass Village.

There are nearly 20 different buildings proposed in the project, some as high as eight stories and over half of them over the town’s 38-foot height limit.

Most of the residential units are to be configured as condos owned by one buyer, although there are expected to be two brand-name “flag” hotel properties in the village.

In all, there will be 833,640 square feet of new residential space in Base Village, plus 158,000 square feet of new retail, restaurant, skier services and other commercial space in the project. The core of the village is to rest on a three-story parking garage built into the side of the hill. In all, there will be 476,000 square feet of underground parking garages built as part of the project, with enough room for 990 cars.

The Town Council has asked Intrawest and the Skico to answer a number of critical questions in the next stage, and in fact, has provided the companies with 39 separate “directions” to take into account while preparing its preliminary application.

Perhaps most important is whether the project will actually attract the skiers and shoppers that the council hopes it will, and whether the new condos will actually stay in the resort’s rental pool.

Today, many of the existing condos in Snowmass Village have been taken out of the rental pool as their owners have paid off most of the purchase price and fixed them up so they no longer need the rental income or the wear and tear that comes with visiting skiers.

“The applicants shall demonstrate how the units would operate in a rental pool program, including how it will provide a high-occupancy turnover of the beds in a manner consistent with their representation that the majority of the units proposed for Base Village are designed for short-term occupancy and that they anticipate that seventy to eighty percent of the units will participate in a rental system.”

Intrawest has said that has typically been the case at other resorts where it has built large condo complexes, mostly because they design and build smaller units that are easy to rent.

The council is also asking Intrawest to explore proposing more pure retail and restaurant space in the new village, saying that 81,000 square feet may not be enough and that 100,000 square feet may be more appropriate.

And there are questions of phasing. Base Village is to be built in five phases over the next eight to 10 years and the council wants assurance that the project will unfold in a way that makes economic sense from the beginning, especially in regard to balancing commercial space with residential units.

The council will continue reviewing the draft sketch plan resolution for Base Village on Monday, Sept. 23.