W/J plans in the idea stage | AspenTimes.com

W/J plans in the idea stage

Jeremy Heiman

The president of the corporation that owns W/J Ranch says he hopes to have a development proposal for the ranch before Pitkin County by the end of the year.

Jim DeFrancia, an Aspen resident, said he doesn’t yet know what his company will attempt to build on the troubled property. But, he said he expects the “dominant element” to be affordable housing, with some free-market development to balance the ledger.

“Right now, I couldn’t even speculate on what’s going to be out there,” DeFrancia said. “I guess you could say it’s going to be bigger than a bread box.” Without a doubt, though, it will be much smaller than the 778 employee units proposed by former W/J owner John Musick, he added.

DeFrancia heads up Lowe Community Development, a division of Lowe Enterprises, Inc., a Los Angeles-based development company with large holdings nationwide in resort, office and residential properties. Lowe purchased W/J in December by taking over Musick’s debt to Lehman Brothers, a large investment banking firm. That debt reportedly amounted to around $20 million.

Lowe Community Development, in all probability, won’t actually build dwellings at W/J. The firm specializes in “land entitlements and infrastructure,” DeFrancia said, which means it lays out a development and puts in utilities and streets.

“My rule of thumb is I don’t do anything higher than a curb,” DeFrancia said. Lowe has hired Design Workshop, an Aspen planning firm, to create a plan for the 112-acre McLain Flats property, he said.

Lowe has had a working relationship with Lehman Brothers for many years, DeFrancia said, and will depend on the banking firm to finance the project. At this point, they’ve renegotiated the loan to cover the project through the planning and land-use approval process stages, he said. Development constraints Since Lowe bought W/J, the firm has been gathering information on the property and studying the possibilities. Numerous factors constrain what can be built and where.

For example, DeFrancia said, 35 easements of all imaginable types crisscross the property, some dating from the 1800s. The easements permit such things as rail, ditches and utilities across the land. Other constraints include the zoning and the natural topography. Plans for a development will depend on what the studies turn up.

No decisions have been made as to the style of housing appropriate for the site.

“We’ll start looking at the product mix and see what we can generate,” said DeFrancia, who admits a bias for single-family, detached homes. “One thing I don’t believe in is density for density’s sake,” he added.

Affordable doesn’t mean unattractive, DeFrancia said. A community needs to include open space and recreational opportunities.

In the process of denying Musick’s application to build a small town on the ranch, Pitkin County officials rezoned W/J. The new designation, RS20, allows only one house per 20 acres. A zoning overlay, to permit affordable housing at some location, was discussed but never adopted.

Lance Clarke, deputy director of planning for the county, said an ordinance allowing such an overlay doesn’t even exist at this time.

But DeFrancia said he hopes the county will accommodate a Lowe plan. “We expect to come in with a plan requesting an AH [affordable housing] overlay,” he said.

He said he will make every attempt to work harmoniously with Pitkin County on the project.

“I’ve been in this business for almost 30 years, and I’ve dealt almost exclusively in a nonconfrontational way,” DeFrancia said. Cleaning up after Musick “We are very much not going to follow the historical precedents of Mr. Musick and Mr. Jaffee,” he said, referring to two former owners of the property.

And he stated that any rumors that his company is acting as a front for Musick are untrue.

DeFrancia also promised to work with the W/J Homeowners Association to see that its members’ needs are met. “We view them as a legitimate participant in the process,” he said.

The existing homeowners, DeFrancia said, were the first people contacted after Lowe gained ownership of the ranch, and the company has tried to take care of some of the mess that Musick left behind.

“I feel like the cleanup crew behind the elephants,” he said. Work that has already been completed includes replacing pumps and electrical panels, completing fences, sealing manholes and picking up around construction areas. DeFrancia claimed the firm has spent about $100,000 cleaning up and finishing unfinished jobs.

Road repairs and weed control are also in the company’s plans, he said.

Musick left behind about $1.6 million in unpaid debts, owed by his corporations, according to DeFrancia. Money was due to small contractors, utility suppliers and the Salvation Ditch Co., he said. And while Lowe has no liability or obligation regarding those debts, the company has made an attempt to pay a significant fraction of each one, to create good will, he said. Pursuing an opportunity DeFrancia said he got involved with W/J – a property that has been plagued with controversy, debt and failure – for three reasons. The first, he said, is that his experience tells him there’s opportunity where there’s a challenge.

“If there weren’t problems, there’d be 15 developers lined up to do it,” he said.

The second is Lowe’s long-standing working relationship with Lehman Brothers.

The third reason DeFrancia is daring to take on the most controversial property in the valley is that both he and Bob Lowe, founder of Lowe Enterprises, have deep roots in Aspen. The company started here, he said, and Lowe has had a home here since the early 1970s. DeFrancia is himself a fourth-generation Colorado resident and has been with Lowe since 1980.

Previous Lowe projects in Aspen include The Gant, a 150-unit resort condominium hotel, dating from 1972, and Ute Place, where DeFrancia lives.

DeFrancia has high hopes for getting a plan for W/J through the county’s approval process.

“Two years from now,” he said, “we’d like to have a plan approved and be able to go to work.”

Pitkin County’s Clarke said no one from Lowe has yet approached the county, but DeFrancia’s timeline is not impossible, he said.

“That’s at least within reason,” Clarke said. The five-step subdivision process and rezoning that such a project would require would probably take at least a year, he said.

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