Tale of two cities
November 9, 2005
Ten years ago a hasty shotgun wedding was intended to meld the core of Basalt and the Willits-City Market area into one town.Rather than watch their sales tax base disappear with the relocation of City Market four miles down the road, Basalt officials scrambled to annex toward El Jebel and bring new lands into the town’s fold.
The union has proved elusive.After a decade of development and growth, old town Basalt and its appendage to the west might be farther apart then ever. They have a distinctly different feel; the town government appears to pay more attention closer to the core, intentionally or not; and the two areas don’t even share a name.Old town Basalt comprises, like any town or city, different neighborhoods: the Hill District, Elk Run, Southside and the Wilds, for example. But everyone knows they are a part of Basalt.Not so with the other side of town, where geographic confusion reigns. Officially it’s known as West Basalt, but no one really calls it that. Willits might build its own identity through sheer mass; work has started on a 450,000-square-foot town center that will feature shops, restaurants and upstairs residential lofts. A sprawling business center borders Willits to the south but remains a disjointed hodgepodge of businesses and light-industrial workshops. City Market and Movieland remain affiliated in many people’s minds with El Jebel – which is actually an unincorporated but densely developed area across Highway 82, from Movieland.”I feel a huge connection to West Basalt – I shop at City Market all the time,” said Bernie Grauer, an Elk Run resident and Basalt planning commission member. But that connection has its limits.”I know I’m in Basalt but it feels like I’m in El Jebel,” Grauer admitted.
Councilwoman Anne Freedman said at a Nov. 8 council meeting that the integration of Willits into Basalt persists as a top issue. Her observation came after one applicant for a council opening had to be reminded that Willits and West Basalt are part of the town.”That’s one of the problems we have,” Freedman said. “We have these two pieces that are connected by a ribbon of highway.”Geography will forever keep Basalt and West Basalt apart. Open space acquisitions between the two pods of development will preserve pastures south of Highway 82, as well as wetlands along the Roaring Fork River on the north. That will prevent old town Basalt and the Willits-City Market area from morphing together via strip development along the highway corridor.
Old town Basalt is nothing if not charming. It’s got a laid-back feel and an inviting mix of art galleries, shops, boutiques and restaurants that invite people to stroll along Midland Avenue, the town’s main street.The town government has enhanced the pedestrian friendliness of downtown by reducing the traffic lanes from eight to four at the main intersection of town, painting crosswalks at strategic places and adding speed humps on Two Rivers Road as its enters Basalt.Town officials successfully battled to keep the post office within walking distance of downtown when it outgrew its spot in the core. The government’s centerpiece project in 2004 and 2005 was the creation of a new riverside park and trail network behind the popular Taqueria el Nopal restaurant.In contrast to the pedestrian friendliness of downtown Basalt is the auto-oriented setup of West Basalt. Currently, the majority of businesses are designed for people to drive to, get what they need and hop back in their car and get going.”The things that are down here, people need and they want to get them in a hurry,” said Ann MacLeod, a homeowner in Willits since 2000. “Every time I go to Basalt I think, ‘Wow, that’s what a town can be like in the mountains.'”
Old town Basalt provides that classic Western town feel, where business buildings line the main street and growth occurred in layers around it, MacLeod noted, while West Basalt provides the classic American suburban feel of sprawl, with heavy traffic through commercial clusters on a spaghetti network of roads.In contrast to meticulously maintained flower gardens on public and private property in and around downtown, parts of West Basalt are weed-infested eyesores. Open lots at the eastern entrance to City Market were overgrown this summer with thistles. Cans, paper wrappers and other garbage were strewn on property maintained by the owners of Orchard Plaza.The once-charming building on the west entrance to the Orchard Plaza complex, near the El Jebel stoplight, has slipped into decay. Owner Joshua Saslove and his partners have rented it out to various restaurateurs, such as Mermaids, but none could make the site work.Abandoned vehicles adorned the parking lot this summer, including one that had been stripped of some tires and wheels. Grass was unclipped. Weeds flourished. Windows were boarded up with plywood after windows were broken out.
Several Basalt officials said the town government doesn’t intentionally neglect West Basalt. “Some people might say it’s ignored, but I don’t think that the case,” said Councilman Glenn Rappaport, who lives in the Hill District.But squeaky wheels receive attention, Rappaport said, and more squeaky wheels get brought to the town government’s attention in old town Basalt. People in old town walk around their neighborhoods a lot and aren’t shy about picking up the phone to lobby their elected officials to put in speed bumps to slow traffic or build trails to enhance pedestrian opportunities.”A lot of this happens because of citizens’ raising antenna,” said Rappaport. “[West Basalt] really needs people out there saying, here’s a problem, what do you think?”Although it’s been part of Basalt for a decade (it was once part of unincorporated Eagle County), West Basalt’s participation in the political process remains subdued. The reason, in large part, is because its population only started soaring in the last few years. Participation in the political process hasn’t yet matured among the young families that tend to be moving in to places like Willits.Currently, Mayor Leroy Duroux is the only member of the seven-person council that lives in West Basalt. “I don’t think I’ve heard any complaints that Basalt isn’t taking care of things out there as well as in town,” Duroux said.Town Manager Bill Efting said West Basalt is a “work in progress” rather than a neglected part of town. “Some of it’s been a work in progress that’s overdue,” he said.He noted that $20,000 was spent this year to add picnic shelters to the Willits Park just off Highway 82, where the soccer fields are well-used. The public works department also started adding flower gardens in public places that are sprinkled around West Basalt. From a financial standpoint, West Basalt has earned its keep – and more. Last year, $978,710 in sales tax revenues were collected by the town from businesses in West Basalt. That was 55 percent of the town’s total sales tax revenue.In contrast, $266,577 in sales tax revenues came from downtown businesses. The remaining $525,000 came from Southside, the commercial complex around The Basalt Store and other portions of old town.
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Efting and Duroux acknowledged that the intersection at East Valley Road and Willits Lane needs attention. It’s a busy crossroads where traffic pulls off and onto Highway 82 when coming and going to City Market. The traffic level soared last year when the Willits General Store opened and tapped the intersection as its entrance.
A pedestrian trail serving the hundreds of new residences in Willits leads to that intersection, but walkers and bike riders receive little aid in crossing it. No painted crosswalk exists at the busy intersection.Farther down Willits Lane, a wide cement trail built by the town and Willits developers is being lengthened this fall, but it will still evolve into a dirt singletrack that negotiates a narrow strip between private property and Willits Lane. Farther down there’s a gravel path that gets too muddy for use during much of the winter.Efting said improvements to these areas cannot progress until after a master plan is undertaken for the trails and roads in the Willits Lane area. Money has been budgeted to start that study in 2006.One possibility that will be explored is a roundabout at the Willits Lane intersection with East Valley Road. “We’re going to look at a traffic circle there. It might function well,” said Duroux.As for the runaway weeds on the City Market lot, Efting said he wasn’t aware of that because there were no complaints. Landowners have traditionally been willing to clean their property when approached by the town, he said.And the town’s hands might be tied when it comes to the former restaurant building. Efting said he had the town’s chief building official inspect it once for safety hazards, but the town can’t force the owners to make it a functional part of the community or tear it down.
Former councilwoman and West Basalt resident Jacque Whitsitt said she believes the town could and should be devoting more attention and resources to Willits and the rest of West Basalt.The council wouldn’t allow the former restaurant building to go unattended if it was located near downtown, she claimed, also pointing the finger at herself for not having attended to such issues during her eight years on the council.”What would happen if a couple of buildings on Main Street would be boarded up?” she asked. Her guess was the town would pass an ordinance requiring the owner to take action.Whitsitt conceded that it takes time for a new area of town, like Willits, to develop character and a sense of place. Unfortunately, you can’t just add water and have instant town.
But the Basalt government could help nurture West Basalt’s development as a true neighborhood by speeding improvements to traffic circulation and pedestrian trails, according to Whitsitt.”The trade center is not the slightest bit pedestrian-friendly,” she said. And streets aren’t set up on a grid that connect different portions of West Basalt. Instead, they serve only commercial “chunks” of the area, Whitsitt added.MacLeod also believes Basalt can do more to usher in the sense of place that many West Basalt residents yearn for. The town government has a proven track record with the wonderful job it’s done in old town.”Basalt can do a great job when it puts its mind to it,” she said.What Willits and West Basalt really need is something that the town government can’t necessarily offer, according to MacLeod. It needs a gathering place, a focal point where people can congregate.
MacLeod felt a golden opportunity to add that sense of place slipped away when a library or satellite library building was rejected for Willits. “It would have given us a sense of pride, community and culture,” she said.She campaigned to try to get it built in Willits. The campaign failed, and the efforts by a former Basalt mayor and town manager to keep it out of Willits left a sour taste in her mouth.
Willits developer Michael Lipkin promises the sense of place is coming in the not-too-distant future. It’s important to him.”It was always my interest to build a town, not a development,” he said.While commercial development so far has been oriented toward automobile traffic, that will change as the Willits Town Center gets built out, Lipkin said. The Triangle Park building, being erected now with a crane that towers over the steel skeleton of the frame, will add shops and restaurants where people will want to spend time. Wide sidewalks will make the core inviting to pedestrians.Triangle Park itself could be the gathering place people desire, Lipkin said. Willits residents led by Dr. Kelly Locke are raising funds to install an interactive fountain, like the wildly popular one on the Hyman Avenue mall in Aspen.As Willits’ population of full-time residents continues to grow, the demand and the critical mass necessary for a gathering place like a coffee shop will also grow, he said. The appeal will reach beyond West Basalt.”There are already reasons for residents of Willits to go to Basalt,” Lipkin said. “There will soon be more and more reasons for people from Basalt to come to Willits.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org