Willits in El Jebel: A cross between Wal-Mart, Gucci? | AspenTimes.com
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Willits in El Jebel: A cross between Wal-Mart, Gucci?

What to you get when you cross Aspen’s Gucci with Glenwood Springs’ Wal-Mart? The Willits project in El Jebel.

The man who wants to build what could become one of the biggest commercial centers in the valley outlined plans for Basalt officials recently to wed Aspen’s boutiques with Glenwood’s affordability.

Willits owner Michael Lipkin envisions that odd pairing at his Willits project, just upvalley from the El Jebel City Market.

He is going to build between 340,000 and 598,000 square feet of retail, office, restaurant, hotel and residential space in the downtown core of Willits, depending on how his proposal fares in reviews by the Basalt Town Council.

Lipkin, the property owner who has teamed with developers Clay Crossland and Paul Adams on the project, touted the commercial part of his project as old town USA, where streets are set up in a traditional grid instead of suburban strip mall style.

But some Basalt officials questioned whether the project will just end up hosting big-box retailers in a fancy setting. Lipkin said the project simply doesn’t accommodate a big national retailer like Wal-Mart easily.

Those national firms typically secure land on a town’s edge where no zoning exists. They build an ocean of parking along with a drab, cost-efficient building.

No such ocean of parking will be available at downtown Willits, Lipkin said. And the largest footprint of any single building will be about 22,500 square feet – considerably less than stores like Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target or Home Depot require.

Realities of real estate development in the Roaring Fork Valley will also make it difficult for a big-box retailer at Willits. Lipkin explained that infrastructure costs are “phenomenal” at the project, in large part because of the design.

“I think it’s going to come into play in a way that’s negative,” he said. “We’ve designed it to be expensive.”

Willits will likely contain retail shops and restaurants on first floors of buildings, offices on second floors and possibly residences on third floors.

While he all but ruled out big-box retailers, Lipkin didn’t dismiss the possibility of attracting national retailers, the types of chains that have swarmed to Aspen over the last decade.

“There’s Gucci up in Aspen. There’s Wal-Mart down in Glenwood. We think there’s something here in-between,” said Lipkin.

With its architectural controls and small, dispersed parking lots, the Willits project has the potential to be a factory outlet mall center, something a little higher class and aesthetically pleasing than the popular center at Silverthorne.

While infrastructure costs will drive rents, Lipkin said he hopes that some sites at his project, particularly the smaller ones with lower rents, prove attractive for locally owned businesses.

But Lipkin cautioned members of the Basalt Town Council and planning commission in a recent meeting that national chains might be prevalent at Willits, despite good intentions with locally owned businesses.

“Everything is getting nationalized in this country,” he noted.

Lipkin said he thinks his commercial center can be successful because it provides a “critical mass” of businesses that will draw people. Willits itself will provide a bevy of shoppers. Roughly 500 residences are part of the project, and final approvals could create more.

The El Jebel City Market, although located outside of Willits on the adjacent Orchard Plaza, provides a strong anchor tenant that draws shoppers from throughout the valley. Lipkin said he would aim to sign on a specialty supermarket, like Alfalfa’s, in a 20,000-square-foot space.

He envisions little trouble signing other tenants, as long as conditions don’t change drastically before he gets approvals. The project is facing final review by the Basalt Town Council. Even if the approval comes quickly, buildout would be over several years.

“We are very under-retailed in the midvalley,” Lipkin contended, noting that a significant share of valley residents shop in Glenwood and points beyond. “This is an effort to bring back the dollar to this valley that’s going to other places.”


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