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Basalt wants changes to proposed river center

Contributed imageThe Roaring Fork Conservancy wants to build a 8,432-square-foot river center in Basalt in three phases. Some town council members are concerned the river center will impede public access to the Roaring Fork River and Old Pond Park.
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BASALT – A proposed river center received the first of two approvals needed from the Basalt Town Council last week, but the board majority said they were concerned about the building’s size and design, and the barrier it would create to the adjacent park.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy wants to build a 8,432-square-foot exhibition hall, education center and office on land it bought from the town west of Tacqueria el Nopal restaurant. The facility would be built in phases, and completed in six to nine years.

Councilman Pete McBride said he supports the concept but questions the size.



“My main question is, and I just haven’t heard an answer, why does it need to be so big?” McBride asked representatives of the conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit that focuses on water quality and quantity issues in the Roaring Fork watershed.

He said his rough calculation showed the proposed building will be three times the size of Town Hall. People he has heard from want to know why an environmental organization needs a building that requires such a large footprint and so many resources to construct, he said.



“Is it not hypocritical to build something about water and environmentalism with this kind of ‘bigger-is-better’ concept?” McBride asked.

Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt agreed that the proposed center is big and “blocky” for the site. She said she was concerned that it will impede public access to the Roaring Fork River and the rehabilitated pond at Old Pond Park, a concern shared by other council members. Some residents, unaware that the building is the headquarters of an environmental organization focused on water, might avoid the area thinking they are trespassing on some business’s private land, they said.

Councilwoman Anne Freedman said “people [might] look at this as just another building blocking the river.”



Whitsitt said the council has to think of all its constituents.

“Our first responsibility is to the citizens to make sure we don’t slam something through that people will later go, ‘This isn’t feeling friendly to me,'” she said.

She said she was unsure if the building’s size or its design created the problem. “I don’t feel this is OK yet. I just don’t,” Whitsitt said.

Rick Lofaro, executive director of the conservancy, said the size was determined during a decade of planning. Experts from a number of environmental education organizations were consulted and they all warned that it is easy to outgrow this type of facility, said Tim O’Keefe, education director for the conservancy.

The river center’s focus will be numerous interactive exhibits on topics ranging from supply and demand of river water to the importance of riparian habitat. “It’s going to be full of fun stuff,” O’Keefe said. Those exhibits need space.

McBride and Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer urged the conservancy to focus on getting kids and other students out on the river for education rather than in a classroom or exhibit hall. In a past meeting, McBride noted the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is an effective and renowned education center despite the small size of its facility.

“This is not ACES. This is not going to be anything like ACES,” Lofaro said.

He likened the river center to a visitors’ center at a national park – something fitting for the Roaring Fork Valley. The conservancy is already regarded as a top organization in its field in Colorado, Lofaro said, and it envisions broadening its leadership on water issues in the near future. The idea is to join The Aspen Institute and Rocky Mountain Institute as great institutions based in the Roaring Fork Valley. That vision requires a facility to match, Lofaro said.

Councilman Glenn Rappaport said he trusted the conservancy and its architect, Harry Teague, to design a suitable facility for the site.

“To say that a building is too big or too little, or weighs too much or doesn’t weigh enough, or is blue or yellow or green – I don’t want to be that guy,” Rappaport said.

The town’s land use code has certain guidelines, such as building heights and setbacks from lot lines. The council should make sure the conservancy adheres to the general parameters but let them design their own facility, Rappaport said. The conservancy has put a good deal of thought about the size of facility they need and the town should trust the conservancy’s conclusions, he said.

The other five council members present at the hearing said they needed to see greater details on the design before final approval. Mayor Leroy Duroux said the size might be appropriate, but he felt the council should see more on the design before giving final approval.

Council members McBride, Schwoerer, Whitsitt and Freedman made it clear they not only want to see the design – they want alterations. Councilwoman Karin Teague recused herself from discussions and voting on the project because her husband is the architect.

Rappaport accused the board majority of “micromanaging.”

“I probably know more than anyone on the board about architectural criticism, and I don’t want to go there,” said Rappaport, an architect.

McBride took exception to the suggestion he was micromanaging.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking questions. If you want to rubber-stamp things, be my guest,” he told Rappaport.

Larry Yaw, a member of the conservancy’s board of directors, urged the council to avoid getting involved in architectural review. It could lead to a long process that saps the nonprofit’s limited resources.

“We don’t have the dollars to dribble this thing through 20 council meetings,” Yaw said.

Like Rappaport, he said the conceptual design fits the site and meets the community scale. The conservancy needs “assurances” from the council that it should move forward, he said. O’Keefe said some large donors are reluctant to commit their dollars to the project before it secures approvals.

The council ultimately passed an ordinance unanimously granting first-round approval for the project. They turned down a request to shorten the review to a one-step process before the council. They want the conservancy to return with detailed architectural plans that address the concerns about size, design, or both. The clear implication from the majority was that changes will be necessary.

Whitsitt urged the conservancy to address the council’s needs so the project can advance.

“I know it sounds like we’re being critical, and maybe it’s difficult to feel the love, but we do want this very badly,” she said.


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