What is up at Willits?
When I read last week that Whole Foods had upped the development ante for opening a high-end market at Willits, something grated in me. Since when does a vaunted retailer dictate growth trends for a community?Another question plagued me more: Would the developers of Willits use Whole Foods as a lever to force more urban-scale development down the throat of the midvalley? Naaaa. Nobody would stoop so low or be so desperate. Still, I contacted Whole Foods and asked a few questions.First, I read about Whole Foods on its website and discovered a company that promotes the image of corporate and retail integrity – not only regarding healthy food, but with sensitivity for the communities where it opens markets. Elsewhere, I discovered that Whole Foods is being criticized for its efforts to acquire Wild Oats (there’s a federal antitrust suit pending) and for not taking full advantage of local farmers, but instead flying in food from the other side of the globe.No corporation is flawless, but the company pledges a strong social and environmental commitment to communities by recognizing and honoring local autonomy and civic values. I wish I could say the same for the developers of Willits, because the response I received from Whole Foods shed a different light on their values.”Whole Foods Market has not asked for concessions from the town of Basalt,” replied Cathy Cochran-Lewis, Marketing Director/Coordinator of Whole Foods Market’s Rocky Mountain Region, in direct contradiction to the developers. “We are not asking for concessions from the town in order to commit to building our store there,” she insisted. “We have signed a lease and are committed to building in Basalt. The building we are going into is slated for residential units to be built above the store. This is not a requirement by us, and we have not asked for or stipulated an additional 85,000 square feet of residential real estate.”Then where did the additional 85,000 square feet of residential development – including 65 high-end units – come from? This is the ante the Willits developers claim Whole Foods demanded. By week’s end, the developer had no explanation other than claiming a misunderstanding.This misunderstanding, however, was foisted upon Basalt town council – and the public – as the rationale for raising the stakes at Willits, which already has approvals to build 500,000 square feet. Apparently, a half-million square feet are not enough. But enough for what? Enough to realize gross profits, enough to urbanize the midvalley core and banish rural values from the landscape? Such is the impact of the enormous steel boxes dominating the view plane at Willits.By escalating Willits via the lever of Whole Foods, the developers would gain personally from the further transformation from rural to urban densities at the expense of mid-valley residents, of which they are not members. The impacts don’t bother them in Aspen or Chicago.Whether or not there was a misunderstanding between the Willits developers and Whole Foods, no commercial development – no matter how alluring – should compromise the civic and governmental processes regulating growth in Basalt.The integrity of that process, which is based upon public trust and the long-range vision of an autonomous government, should be inviolable against the personal interests of any developer or retailer. If the misunderstanding turns out to be a willful misrepresentation, then the developer has maligned that process and violated that trust.”We greatly respect the character of our mountain and rural communities in Colorado,” pledged Whole Foods, “and our goal is to become a contributing part of the communities we serve and share in the environmental and community well being.”Expanding an already enormous development on spurious grounds takes a polar opposite to that approach. Basalt council – and all local governments – must be forever wary of such representations before the steel boxes begin to rise from the ground.Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays.
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