Willits seeks approval for 91,000 sq ft expansion in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Willits seeks approval for 91,000 sq ft expansion in Basalt

The developed portion of Willits Town Center is flourishing, with sales expected to reach $45 million in 2015. However, the debate is how to proceed with the undeveloped part, such as the area between Willits Lane the finished interior.

The Basalt Town Council will start the review today of Willits Town Center's request to add 91,000 square feet of commercial and residential space to its project, which already exceeds 500,000 square feet.

Mariner Real Estate Management, an investment firm from Kansas City, Kansas, applied to add 31,500 square feet of residential space and nearly 59,500 square feet of commercial space. The firm would be required to build an additional 19,000 square feet of affordable housing, but that wouldn't be applied to the allowable square footage.

The 500,000 square feet that Basalt approved in 2001 for housing, shops, restaurants and offices in Willits is a little more than half built out. The 113-room Element by Westin Hotel opens today.

Mariner officials told the Basalt Town Council in an earlier, informal discussion last summer that the way the project has evolved, they have more vacant land than allowable square footage. They also contend the additional density is needed to spur vitality and make the project more viable.

Staff recommends approval

The Willits review comes at a time when the economic vitality of downtown has been the community's prime focus. The council has spent the better part of two years trying to set a course for possible development on the Pan and Fork site west of downtown. One major faction of the town wants a development plan that spurs economic vitality downtown. Another equally large faction wants to preserve as much of the site as possible for a park along the Roaring Fork River and possibly an events venue.

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Some speakers in public hearings have said the town's approval of Willits Town Center came at the expense of downtown. Three major downtown retailers relocated to Willits.

The council hasn't set a definitive course for the Pan and Fork; the square footage of development remains at the center of sharp debate.

Willits appears to be rolling on a faster track. The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission voted last month to advise the council to approve the expansion. The planning staff also recommended approval.

Mariner would be asked to make several concessions in return for approval. It would make a $60,000 donation to help establish a We-Cycle program to provide bicycles for short-haul trips in Basalt and another $10,000 annually for three years for operating expenses. Mariner would be required to connect the traffic signals at El Jebel and Willits Lane with fiber-optic communication to coordinate the cycles better and improve flow on Highway 82. Public parking would be authorized in the underground garage beneath Whole Foods Market.

Traffic congestion and use of public sales tax revenue to help pay for the development are two issues likely to garner attention (see related fact box on page A3).

Public hearing Time change

Basalt initially scheduled the Willits Town Center review to begin at 9 p.m. The meeting starts at 6 p.m., but the agenda was packed with other items.

Former Basalt Town Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer, an activist who lives in Willits, wrote an email to Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and Town Manager Mike Scanlon on Monday to object to the time of the hearing.

It is "completely inaccessible for community attendance," she wrote.

Scanlon said he would like to provide as much opportunity as possible for public input. He reshuffled the agenda, and the Willits hearing was rescheduled for 7:45 p.m. at Basalt Town Hall.

scondon@aspentimes.com

TRAFFIC AND TAXES

Traffic congestion and use of tax sales tax revenues — two hot button topics in the Roaring Fork Valley — may play key roles in the Willits Town Center review.

The Colorado Department of Transportation warned Basalt staff that future traffic from Willits Town Center might overwhelm the roundabout at Willits Lane and Valley Road/East Valley Road.

Dan Roussin, a permit unit manager for CDOT in Region 3, wrote in a memo that the traffic engineer for Willits correctly recognized that vehicles departing Willits Lane may “spill” back into the roundabout as they wait to turn onto Highway 82.

“I believe this will happen more often that the traffic engineer predicts,” Roussin wrote.

To avoid the congestion, some motorists will likely turn on Valley Road between City Market and Highway 82 in an effort to get to the stoplight at El Jebel. “As you are aware, this intersection already has operational challenges,” Roussin wrote.

He added, “The Willits Town Center project does have a significant impact to the highway system. The signal at Willits will handle the extra volume at level of service ‘D.’ However, the close proximity of the roundabout and the signal does have a negative impact to the operations of the roundabout at peak times, especially in the future.”

Regarding the tax issue, Mariner contends it faces a $12.1 million gap between developing a major portion of Willits Town Center and the anticipated income from commercial rents. As part of the solution, Mariner wants to share new sales taxes generated by retail growth at Willits with Basalt taxpayers.

The town expects Willits Town Center businesses to generate $45 million in sales in 2015. That would be the baseline figure. Marine and the town would share the tax revenues on sales above $45 million. Mariner would use its share to help fund or offset construction. There would be a cap on the amount to be shared.

Ehlers, the town’s financial consultant, will discuss the complicated revenue-sharing proposal at the meeting.