Willits developer seeks forgiveness
BASALT Nearly two weeks after Whole Foods Market contradicted a claim that it needed more residences to open a store in Basalt, the developer offered an explanation Tuesday.Developer Michael Lipkin released a statement that said he made an “honest mistake” when he claimed the grocery chain “required” 85,000 square feet of additional residential space. Representatives of the grocery chain had refuted the comment.Lipkin sent a letter to members of the Basalt Town Council, Basalt planning commission and “the citizens of the Roaring Fork Valley” explaining his erroneous claim. (A copy also was sent to The Aspen Times and appears as a guest opinion in the Columnists section.)”I apologize for mistakenly categorizing the need for additional density as a requirement of Whole Foods,” Lipkin’s letter said. “But please understand it was an honest mistake. I’ve been doing this too long, and I’m not foolish enough to think that Basalt’s exhaustive, transparent review process would not uncover any inconsistency or misrepresentation.”What’s the issue?Lipkin portrayed the request for 85,000 square feet of residential space as a “requirement” of Whole Foods. He made the claim in writing in a land-use application to the town and verbally at a June 5 meeting with the Basalt Town Council and planning commission. Lipkin indicated that the natural grocer wouldn’t locate in Basalt unless the town met the requirement.Why was that controversial?After the June 5 meeting, Whole Foods representatives told reporters that their supermarket didn’t hinge on the additional residences at Willits. They said they were satisfied with the demographics of the Roaring Fork Valley without the alterations to the project. The lease they signed said nothing about the residences. The store is due to open in 2009 or 2010.That disclosure raised questions among some observers about Lipkin’s motives. The addition of a natural grocer of Whole Foods’ stature is high on the wish list of many Roaring Fork Valley residents. It appeared that Lipkin might be using that intense desire as leverage to get approval for more lucrative residences. How does Lipkin explain the mistake?He said, essentially, that it was a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. Lipkin is the founding developer of the Willits Town Center project. He gained a partner last winter when Chicago-based Joseph Freed and Associates bought into the project. JFA is a national player in building and leasing projects that mix residential and commercial uses.Joseph Freed and Associates took over the negotiations with Whole Foods when JFA bought into Willits. Lipkin said he handled the application to alter his original approvals so that the project would accommodate the supermarket. While working on the application, it was his understanding that the 85,000 square feet of new residential space was part of the lease, he said.Lipkin said he didn’t learn until after the controversy erupted that the lease wasn’t contingent on more residences. However, he maintained that the residential space is a requirement of sorts.Lipkin said he and his partner had to offer Whole Foods a very favorable lease to entice the grocer to the valley. He said it would have been more accurate for him to call the extra residential space a requirement to make the project economically feasible rather than a requirement of Whole Foods.”The building is a first class, mixed-use brick building – not a stucco box or a piece of strip development,” Lipkin wrote. “It is all very expensive and without the increased density, the economics of the transaction risk its feasibility. One can easily call the need for the increased density a requirement of the deal, if not a requirement of the lease.” What’s next?Lipkin e-mailed his explanation to Basalt officials on Tuesday afternoon, so they haven’t had time to react yet. Mayor Leroy Duroux declined comment because it could jeopardize his ability to participate in the review of a pending application.A hearing the planning commission scheduled for Tuesday night was delayed because Lipkin was out of town.The town government’s review will resume in July. Lipkin gave every indication he will continue to seek the 85,000 square feet of additional residential space.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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