Willits eases stance | AspenTimes.com

Willits eases stance

BASALT ” Although Tuesday night’s Basalt Town Council meeting placed the future of a Whole Foods grocery store in jeopardy, the developers of Willits Town Center declared Wednesday that they will do what it takes to land the supermarket.

The developers insisted at the meeting that they cannot build a 44,000 square foot Whole Foods store without approval for an additional 85,000 square feet of free-market residences at the Willits Town Center. Those homes are the “economic engine” which generate the revenue necessary for infrastructure for Whole Foods, said Tim Belinski, vice president of development for Joseph Freed and Associates, which owns the project.

Some Basalt Town Council members questioned the claim. They want an economic analysis to determine whether the project needs the additional density to be feasible.

“You’re telling me if you don’t get this additional density that Whole Foods is going to go away? Is that your representation to the board?” Councilmen Chris Seldin asked the developers Tuesday night.

“This is all tied together,” responded Belinski. He strongly indicated that Whole Foods will not be built if the additional free-market residences aren’t approved.

Whole Foods Markets signed a lease last summer to come to Willits. If all goes well, Belinski said, the development of the Whole Foods building could be fast-tracked so the store could open as early as summer 2009. The lease contains performance provisions that the developers must meet. One provision is for exclusive parking ” a surface lot with at least 200 spaces and an underground garage with at least 98 spaces, according to documents on file at Town Hall.

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Joseph Freed and Associates doesn’t appear in position to jeopardize its arrangement with Whole Foods. The project is approved for 362,000 square feet of commercial space. Only a fraction of it has been developed.

Company officials said when they bought the project from Michael Lipkin, Paul Adams and Clay Crossland earlier this year that signing an anchor tenant was a priority because it would lure other tenants. If Whole Foods is constructed, Joseph Freed and Associates will still have more than 250,000 square feet of commercial space to develop and lease.

In an e-mail exchange with The Aspen Times on Wednesday, Belinski downplayed the threat to Whole Foods’ status that was so prevalent the night before.

“Whole Foods Market has been and continues to be the best fit as the anchor tenant at Willits,” he wrote. “We see Whole Foods as the most appropriate reflection of our community values, and we are certain it will create the best chemistry and vibe for Willits.

“We have no interest in canceling the lease, nor do we sense the greater community wants that to happen either,” he said.

But a faction of the council shows no sign of approving the Willits Town Center expansion without the economic analysis. Councilmen Mark Kittle and Gary Tennenbaum joined Seldin in expressing support for Whole Foods but an unwillingness to yield without studies on the impacts of the expansion.

Mayor Leroy Duroux and council members Laurie Dows and Glenn Rappaport were in favor of the expansion and didn’t feel additional studies were necessary.

The seventh member of the council, Amy Capron, wasn’t at the meeting. She has been cautious about growth during her 1 1/2 years on council.

It appears something’s got to give in order for Whole Foods to survive the process ” either the town has to approve the expansion proposal or the developers have to open their books to scrutiny and prove the need for the expansion. Belinski indicated the developers will cooperate with the requests for additional studies, to a degree.

“The rationale for our PUD amendment was not driven by any kind of financial hardship, so there are limits to what can be done on this,” Belinski told The Times. He noted that some town officials said a limited fiscal analysis is undertaken by other town governments on development proposals. Maybe that will work in this case, Belinski said.

The review of the Willits Town Center expansion resembles what happened recently with the Lodge of Aspen Mountain proposal that went before the Aspen City Council. The developer said no concessions could be made to the proposal, which many observers felt was a bluff. The council called that bluff ” the developers made some concessions. Ultimately, the developer didn’t get the lodge approved.

When Belinski was asked if his development team is bluffing that Whole Foods won’t be built without the expansion, he said it’s natural for changes to be made as the project goes through the process.

“We would hope that as we show flexibility through the approval process, or as we juggle things to attend to new requests or try to solve problems that surface, it shows that we are paying attention and being responsible to the public,” Belinski said.

The council is scheduled to resume discussion of the project on Oct. 23.

Scott Condon’t e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.