Willits group gets separate reviews | AspenTimes.com

Willits group gets separate reviews

BASALT ” Whole Foods will get the undivided attention of Basalt officials next month.

The Basalt Town Council unanimously approved a request Tuesday night by the Willits Town Center developers to separate reviews of a supermarket and additional residences in the project.

The developers had earlier tied the fate of the supermarket to a request for 120 additional residences in their village core. But as review bogged down in controversy, the developers reconsidered and asked for the bifurcation.

Their contract with Whole Foods Markets requires them to deliver the shell of a building by June 2009 so Whole Foods can customize the interior. They fear they cannot meet that deadline without a quick decision from the council.

The developers are now willing to let the application for the 120 residences “idle for the time being,” said Tim Belinski, vice president-development for Joseph Freed and Associates, a Chicago-based development firm that owns the town center.

Willits Town Center is already approved for 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space. The developers don’t need more space for Whole Foods. They need to tweak their approvals to allow construction of a 44,000-square-foot space. The earlier approvals limit the single largest space within the massive development to 36,000 square feet.

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But Joseph Freed and Associates and Michael Lipkin, the original Willits developer, tied the Whole Foods deal in with more housing. They want to build 60 free market and 60 affordable housing units that would add 150,000 square feet to the project.

Council members demanded extensive studies for the proposal, including an independent analysis of the developers’ traffic projections and an economic feasibility report. The developers realized the review would be shelved until probably February while the studies were completed ” jeopardizing their ability to land Whole Foods.

Now, it appears a council decision on Whole Foods could be made as soon as Dec. 11. The town will hire a consultant within days to examine Willits’ traffic projections and parking assessment. They hope to have the results by the Dec. 11 meeting. The developers will be stuck with the bill.

A handful of comments from the audience at Tuesday night’s council meeting suggested Whole Foods doesn’t have the support of the whole midvalley. Blue Lake resident Maralyn Bloomer said she is disappointed that El Jebel has been transformed from a small area to a “monstrosity.” She was excited when three council members were elected on slow growth platforms last year. Now she wants to see the council saying “no” more often to development proposals.

If the town feels a need to create competition among grocers it should consider approving a Safeway or Albertsons rather than a Whole Foods, Bloomer said.

Basalt resident Nancy Broussard agreed, saying she felt Whole Foods is overpriced and wouldn’t suit the budgets of herself and many other midvalley residents. She questioned if Basalt really wants to be home to an upscale store that will attract shoppers ” and traffic ” from Aspen and Vail. Like Bloomer, she said the amount of development that has been approved is “overwhelming” the midvalley.

Anne Freedman, a former Basalt councilwoman, urged the council to gauge the community support for a Whole Foods rather than assume the grocer is universally coveted.

“I’ve heard so many people say it’s not worth the price,” Freedman said. “The town has to weigh the total costs of bringing Whole Foods here.”

She urged a hard line on the developers. They signed a lease that is contingent on delivering a 44,000 square feet space knowing full well they might not get it approved by the council. The council must take its time reviewing the proposal and not get rushed into an approval, she said.

Jamie Rooney of Willits concurred. He said the developers created their own time crunch because they tied the additional housing to the Whole Foods application. Several months were eaten up when the application created a “maelstrom of public outcry,” Rooney said.

He questioned if one grocer was worth the divisiveness it was generated in the small town.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.