Willits hopes to cement Whole Foods deal | AspenTimes.com

Willits hopes to cement Whole Foods deal

BASALT ” The Willits Town Center developers don’t want to miss a chance to build a 44,000-square-foot Whole Foods supermarket, so they’re asking the Basalt Town Council to review their application a different way.

The developers want to separate the review of Whole Foods from their request to add 120 residences the Willits core, said Tim Belinski, vice president-development for Joseph Freed and Associates, the project owner.

“At this time, we are asking Town Council to review only the project changes that are needed to secure Whole Foods Market,” Belinski wrote in an open letter to the community. “We believe they have all of the information needed to make this decision.”

In an interview Friday, Belinski said his team doesn’t sense that the concept of a natural foods supermarket is controversial.

“There’s a lot of support for Whole Foods in the community,” he said.

The developers only need minor adjustments to prior approvals to accommodate the store. As it stands, the largest commercial space Willits can build is 27,500 square feet unless it is a grocery store, then it can go to 36,000 square feet.

Whole Foods requires 44,000 square feet, so an amendment to the original approval is required. The developers aren’t seeking more overall space, just the ability to build one space larger. In other words, the pie won’t grow, it will get sliced differently.

The application to make that adjustment has stalled because it is tied to a request for additional residences.

Willits Town Center already has approvals for 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space. Retail shops and restaurants will be on the ground floor of buildings and residences will be on second and third floors.

The developers want to add 60 free-market and 60 affordable housing units that would total another 150,000 square feet.

Joseph Freed and Associates, a Chicago-based development firm, and Aspenite Michael Lipkin, the original owner of Willits, say the new residences are needed to make the vision for a high-density, pedestrian-oriented core work effectively. The free market units are also an “economic engine” that will raise revenues to build amenities required by Whole Foods, Belinski has explained in meetings with the Town Council.

The developer’s lease with Whole Foods requires 98 parking spaces under the supermarket, 200 surface spaces and additional conditions that will essentially require 400 other underground space, Lipkin said.

Critics in the community counter that the project is too dense and will have too great an impact on infrastructure.

On Oct. 9, the Town Council asked the developers to supply additional information: an economic study that shows why the extra residences are necessary; a third-party analysis of a traffic study; and possibly a study on impacts to schools.

Those studies could take more time than the developers can afford.

“Given the upcoming holidays and other factors, we believe there is a high probability that the report could not be reviewed by the Town Council until February,” said a letter from the developer’s attorney, Jody Edwards, to the town staff.

That timing could kill the Whole Foods proposal. The lease with Whole Foods requires Joseph Freed and Associates to deliver the shell of the building to the supermarket chain on June 1, 2009, so that they can complete tenant finishes.

Belinski said the final approvals and construction will take 16 to 18 months ” and the deadline to turn the shell over to Whole Foods is less than 20 months away.

Therefore, he said, the developers have no choice but to ask that their application be divided. That potentially removes the risk that Whole Foods won’t be built because of a lengthy review. If approved within the next month, contractors could break ground this winter on a building with 44,000 square feet for the supermarket on the first floor and second and third floors of residences, Belinski said.

The developers would face the risk that they can convince town officials that the 120 additional residences are warranted. That scenario “isn’t ideal,” Belinski said, but necessary to salvage the Whole Foods store.

Lipkin said he can understand the council’s desire to carefully study the ramifications for greater density. “This is a commitment that will outlast all of us making these decisions today,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, he believes town officials will agree that Willits Town Center is the appropriate place for increased density.

Basalt Mayor Leroy Duroux said he supports getting Whole Foods constructed and adding to the town’s sales tax base. He was uncertain how the council as a whole will respond to splitting the application.

“I don’t really know what the council is going to say,” he said. “It’s the Willits group’s decision. We’ll see where it goes from here.”

The Town Council will debate the issue at its meeting Tuesday night.

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

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