Debate focuses on residences in latest Pan and Fork proposal | PostIndependent.com

Debate focuses on residences in latest Pan and Fork proposal

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The debate officially started in Basalt on Tuesday night over whether the latest proposal for the former Pan and Fork property provides enough economic vitality for downtown.

Tim Belinski, head of Basalt River Park LLC, introduced his group's proposal to the Town Council and immediately defended the centerpiece of the plan to build 22 free-market residences.

"I am going to start tonight by addressing some of the myths that have been swirling around downtown Basalt," Belinski said.

Myth number one on his list was that "commercial drives vitality." Belinski said building commercial space doesn't magically mean it will attract vibrant businesses. Willits Town Center has 40,000 square feet of vacant commercial space even with Whole Foods as an anchor, he noted.

"You need people," Belinski said. Without high density and a critical mass, commercial property cannot thrive, he said.

Myth number two is that the property can sustain a Trader Joe's or a boutique hotel, according to Belinski.

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"These may be the most damaging expectations that downtown confronts," he said. That's because many people, according to Belinski, dismiss any proposal that doesn't include those components.

The reality is the Basalt area isn't big enough for either type of business, he contended.

"Trader Joe's will not come to the West Slope of Colorado," Belinski said. He told the council he met with representatives of the company and heard that firsthand.

Likewise, the demand doesn't exist to make a hotel — boutique or otherwise — economically feasible on the property, he said. Element Hotel in Willits is growing, but it hasn't achieved a high enough occupancy rate yet to attract a second hotel to the market, according to Belinski.

Belinski was the local representative of Mariner Real Estate Management during the critical development phase of Willits Town Center. He continues to work with the company to lease space and develop the remaining property.

In a separate endeavor, his Basalt River Park LLC obtained an option to purchase about 2 acres of the former Pan and Fork site after Lowe Enterprises failed to gain traction with development plans. The nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. is the property owner.

The site is along Two Rivers Road, west of downtown Basalt and adjacent to the town's park on the banks of the Roaring Fork River.

Belinski's proposal includes making 7,000 square feet of land available to the Art Base so it can build a signature structure for its community arts center, and 1,300 square feet of space for the Basalt Chamber of Commerce to build a visitors' center. The plan also includes a 1,000-square-foot café.

The group also is offering to sell 1 acre of vacant land at the intersection of Two Rivers Road and Midland Avenue to the town for expansion of the park.

But it's the housing component of the plan that stands out for opponents. Belinski's group is proposing 22 free-market residences and six affordable units. The free-market units will be a mix of row houses and duplexes.

During public comment at the council meeting, Basalt resident Greg Shugars said more than 90 percent of the people surveyed by the town earlier in the planning process for the Pan and Fork property said no housing should go on the site. He urged the council to work with Belinski and company to coax a better proposal.

"This is the first salvo," Shugars said. "They're testing the waters to see what you guys are going to accept."

Belinski represents his constituency, which includes his investors, while the council represents the entire town, Shugars continued. He said they had an obligation to make sure the development is right for Basalt.

"There's no other space like this in the Roaring Fork Valley," he said.

Basalt business owner Royal Laybourn said the "800-pound gorilla" in the proposal is the "massive residential" component that will be snatched up by second-home owners. The residences will do little for Basalt's vitality because use will be sporadic, he said.

Laybourn said the true vitality would be creating space for entrepreneurs and business owners struggling for a foothold.

"People are dying to find a place where they can start a business," he said.

Even Jim Light, a successful developer in Snowmass Village and a founding partner in Basalt's Roaring Fork Club, politely wondered if the proposal was the right mix for the town.

"What can make it more vital?" he asked.

He said it's a difficult situation because the seller has certain expectations and the potential buyer has to come up with a plan that makes the numbers work.

The project drew support from Toklat Gallery owner Lynn Mace.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing not to like about this plan," Mace said. "It fulfills everything it seems to me — density, homes, vitality, the park being used."

Members of the council didn't comment on the proposal. They will offer feedback on Sept. 11 though a formal vote might not happen for several meetings.