What you talkin’ ’bout Willits?
When valley residents learned May 10 that Whole Foods, an organic grocery chain with a sterling reputation, planned to locate in the Willits Town Center, most were duly excited. It was the kind of growth and development that nearly everyone in this growth-sensitive valley could support.But when the Willits developers returned to the Basalt Town Council early this week, asking for permission to build and sell an additional 85,000 square feet of residential real estate in order to accommodate the supermarket, suddenly the deal didn’t pass the smell test.And then one day later, when Whole Foods told The Aspen Times that, in fact, the company does not require the additional residences, the deal simply began to stink. Frankly, it began to look like the developer is using the supermarket to wring more revenue out of the project.We’re still not clear on the nature of the disconnect between Willits developer Michael Lipkin and Whole Foods officials. But it’s distressing that Lipkin would tell the Basalt Council one day that the additional density is “a requirement of the specialty grocer given the non-conforming demographics of the Valley,” and that a Whole Foods spokeswoman would tell this newspaper the very next day that “we’re committed to building, so there are no enticements needed.”From the outset, it strained credulity to believe that a grocery chain would really “require” 65 new residences to locate here; Whole Foods’ economic fortunes hardly rest on that many potential customers.Beyond that, however, it’s just bad business to attach such strings to a deal after the fact. As former Basalt Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt stated, “This seemed a little bait-and-switchy to me.”To be fair, Lipkin told the Basalt Council that the additional residential space was also needed to pay for an underground parking structure and other infrastructure required by the store. This seems plausible, except for the fact that already approved Willits lofts and condominiums are selling today for far more than anyone could have imagined when the Town Center was approved in 2001. The asking price for a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,100-square-foot loft is $570,690. An anchor store with associated infrastructure was always envisioned for the Willits Town Center, and the residential component is generating unanticipated heaps of revenue.Excuse our ignorance, but we’re mystified.Again, we still feel that Whole Foods will be a great commercial addition to the midvalley. But this seemingly straightforward deal seemed to go a bit crooked with this added appendage. We hope the town of Basalt eyes this 85,000-square-foot request very carefully.
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