Willits Town Center expansion OK’d in Basalt | AspenTimes.com

Willits Town Center expansion OK’d in Basalt

The site plan shows the layout for Willits Town Center. The core four buildings are constructed and Element Hotel in the lower right opened Tuesday.

The Basalt Town Council gave Willits Town Center the first of two approvals Tuesday night that it needs to expand by 91,000 square feet.

The council voted 4-2 to allow an extra 31,500 square feet of residential space and 59,500 square feet of commercial space, mostly retail.

However, some council members made it clear they have a lot of questions that need to be answered before granting a second approval when a public hearing is held Jan. 12.

The council also granted initial approval 4-2 to requests by the Willits developer, Mariner Real Estate Management, to share new town sales taxes generated at Willits beyond the 2015 level and to endorse a separate 1 percent private fee on its sales.

Mariner representatives said they need the revenue to build out the rest of the project in a timely manner. They said they face a $12 million gap between what they face in development costs and what they will recoup through commercial rents.

Basalt approved 500,000 square feet of residential and commercial space in Willits Town Center in 2001. About half has been developed. David Warner, the architect and planner for Mariner, said the additional square footage is needed because Willits hasn't developed as planned over the past 14 years. A "unique opportunity" arose to commit the entire second floor of one large building to Valley View Hospital, he said. Another opportunity came up for the 113-room Element Basalt-Aspen hotel, which opened Tuesday. Both of those uses eliminated retail space that was contemplated, he said.

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"What we're proposing tonight is really nothing more than a way to finish what we started," Warner said.

The 91,000 square feet of extra space won't increase the footprint of the buildings. "It's just a way we're allocating space," Warner said. "This is really for Basalt."

Councilmen Bernie Grauer, Rick Stevens, Rob Leavitt and Herschel Ross approved the proposal. Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and Councilman Gary Tennenbaum were opposed.

Grauer said the approval is a signal that the council isn't afraid of planned, high-density growth in an appropriate area. "I think it's a signal that the town is willing to invest in its future," he said.

Tennenbaum said he questioned why the town would approve more square footage if the developer faces a gap building what is approved. He wanted to explore the alternative of preserving more green space. He said he couldn't wrap his mind around the developer's contention that adding retail will make existing retail attractive.

Whitsitt said she "fully supports" Mariner developing the rest of its approved space, roughly 200,000 square feet, and asses how it affects issues such as traffic. Allowing more development at a time many people contend the downtown is struggling doesn't make sense, she said.

"I cannot understand why the downtown merchants aren't in here screaming their heads off," Whitsitt said.

Stevens said he doesn't believe that Willits harmed downtown. "I really never bought into that," he said.

Three major retailers relocated from downtown to Willits Town Center. However, Stevens said Willits has demonstrated that it creates "real jobs" rather than just low-paying service industry positions.

scondon@aspentimes.com