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Making meaning of Middle Creek

Geraldine Haldner

For example, in its 40-year history the town of Vail has purchased 1,300 acres of open space for perpetual preservation of Vail’s ambiance. During the same time, the town and private developers have built and reserved 440 homes for local workers, among them 198 rental units at Timber Ridge, 53 for-sale units at Vail Commons in West Vail and the 24 rental units at Buzzard Park.For every 11 affordable or rent-controlled homes that have been added per year, almost 33 acres were preserved forever from development, courtesy of its own funding mechanism, the town’s real estate transfer tax, or RETT.Green space is like comfort food for local politicians, while any affordable housing project has spelled nothing but heartburn for Vail town leaders in the past.But the waiting game is over, some people say, and the bluff has been called.Paying the price for missing the boatThe newest installment of Vail’s uneasy tale with affordable housing centers on Middle Creek, a 142-unit affordable apartment complex perched on a 25-acre hillside east of the Mountain Bell microwave tower and south of Interstate 70.While opposition to the project isn’t a first for Vail, Middle Creek opponents – most of them wealthy property owners and longtime local businessmen – are for the first time challenged in their views that affordable housing belongs somewhere else.”The boat for employee housing left 25 years ago and we weren’t on it,” says Ron Riley, a Vail businessman, who along with 14 other Middle Creek proponents stepped up to the microphone at a recent Planning and Zoning Commission hearing.The commission, along with the town’s Design Review Board, is charged with recommending approval or denial of the $23 million project, which the developer hopes to complete by Christmas 2003.A final vote is scheduled for Sept. 9, when the two boards will meet for a joint work session.Riley, who owns commercial property on Bridge Street, compares Vail’s affordable housing inventory to that of Aspen’s 845 units.The time wasted smarts, he says.”Is this here going to hurt? You bet!” he says.In the wrong place?Opponents of Middle Creek – in the planning pipeline for the past 12 months – have called it too massive for a prominent location at Vail’s “front door.”They say it is unacceptable the town wants to give away precious land for 50 years to a private developer who makes affordable housing projects for profit.They say the architectural concept of buildings almost as tall as the Mountain Bell microwave tower is unbecoming.If Middle Creek is built, Sheika Gramshammer, co-owner of Vail’s famous Gasthaus Gramshammer says, Vail “will have two eyesores.””The first one is the Lodge Tower,” she says. “It was when it was built and it still is. I think we should ask ourselves do we need an eyesore there.”Ground swell of supportProponents of the project – which the Vail Town Council initiated in 2000 – have rallied hard, startled into action two weeks ago when opponents began protesting.Just one month remains, however, before funding deadlines run out.”My house was like a bed-and-breakfast last winter; it was like the UN,” says Tom Higgins, owner of the American Ski Exchange, a T-shirt store in the village, of his efforts to find suitable housing for a host of foreign workers.Of 70 employees he has employed over the past several years, he says, seven have managed to find housing in Vail. Placing his employees in housing from Edwards west, Higgins says, is risky.”That is a long way for me to try to compete for employees,” he says. “You try to find a place to live in town.”Class struggle?The public perception that opinions split according to income isn’t true, says Alan Kosloff, president of the Vail Village Homeowners’ Association, which represents part-time as well as full-time Vail residents – all property taxpayers in a town where the average home costs $350,000.”This isn’t a class struggle,” he says.Mark Gordon, a first-time Vail homeowner and taxpayer, disagrees.”It is all about class,” Gordon says. “What they are saying is we don’t want you here.”Then there’s Thomas Gutherie.”I’m a first-time homeowner. I’m not rich. I’m a waiter,” Gutherie says. “I’m a product of affordable housing. I’ve waited on a handful of these people here. … Dr. Steadman did my knee; I used to serve George Gillette hot dogs.”Middle Creek, Gutherie says, can do what nothing else can do – not a smaller development on the same site as opponents have proposed, nor an equally large development in another location.”It would mean 300 bodies, fresh and right in town. Three-hundred bodies with smiles on their faces, ready to serve you,” he says.But to Julie Esrey, a Spraddle Creek part-time resident, Middle Creek is a mistake of much bigger proportions.”To me this is a global issue with respect to Vail,” she says. “We do need to do various things. But there are many other areas that would not have the prominence that this piece of land has.”Business owners weigh inSonnenalp Resort owner Johannes Faessler says Vail has a certain appeal with guests that a large apartment complex, streamlined in appearance for cost, won’t enhance.”I don’t want it at the entrance of Vail,” says Faessler, who provides employee housing for workers at his three lodges. “What stuns me is that we are considering a project so far away from our design guidelines. If I would come in with a project like this, you would probably laugh me right out of the room.”Faessler is one of three owners of large lodges – along with Gramshammer and Bob Fritch of the Sitzmark Lodge – who say Middle Creek would be a detriment to Vail’s first impressions on guests.But other stewards of the business community don’t buy that.John Brennan, owner of Vendetta’s Italian Restaurant on Bridge Stree, says the variances Middle Creek’s developer seeks aren’t as bad as Vail’s economy will be without Middle Creek.”I think aesthetically this is fine,” he says, adding that to some extent the development will mask the microwave tower – Vail’s true eyesore.As an employer in Vail, Brennan agrees with others, including Vail Business and Chamber Association President Kaye Ferry, owner of The Daily Grind, the struggle for employees willing to commute to and work in Vail is getting tougher with each year.Andrew Karow, vice president of Alpine Bank’s Vail branch, says aside from the land, at least the project “requires no public subsidy, no money from the town.”Politicking in perspectivePast politicians, too, come out on different sides.Rob Ford, who resigned as Vail Mayor in 1999 over the town’s inability to get an affordable housing initiative started over neighborhood opposition, says Middle Creek is too much for Vail.”Vail has always been a small village. Buildings that are almost 100-feet tall? I mean, c’mon,” he says. “I think this an affordable-housing design-control issue. We want to be a community, and we need a design to reflect that.”Sybill Navas, who left the council last November, disagrees.Navas – who voted against a 32-unit townhomes development on the Mountain Bell site in 1994 but has come out in support of the latest proposal on the same site – says the earlier proposal was affordable, but it wasn’t enough.”I thought that if you are going in there and disturbing the site, you might as well make it big,” she says. “Thirty-two just didn’t strike me as good use for the site.”Vail’s future well-beingJim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners’ Association, urges commissioners not to get carried away by an apparent ground swell of support for the project.”When the orgasm of the planning process is over, when people walk away, you will have to remember those that were here in the beginning that made this town very special,” Lamont says.Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi can’t resist weighing in.”Some of us, after an orgasm, ask for more,” Menconi says.Menconi points out, too, the county’s pledge of $1.5 million in financial backing for Middle Creek, saying county leaders believe affordable housing is direly needed in Vail, Menconi says, even more than in Edwards, Avon or Eagle.Kosloff says it is important to remember opposition to Middle Creek, isn’t emotional but rooted in a deep concern for Vail’s future.”I think it is important for us to look at this because it is only beginning to hit us,” he says.Before a final recommendation is made in 10 days, Kosloff says, he hopes the two boards will consider the merits of the project carefully.”You don’t want to look at it for the rest of your life and think that you could have voted against it,” he says.Must-Know Facts about Middle Creek:- What – 142-unit affordable rental apartment complex, estimated to cost $23 million. So far $13.5 million have been committed in public subsidies from Eagle County, state and federal housing authorities. Complex consists of eight separate two- to six-story buildings, covered parking and a $1 million, 4,500-square-foot child care center.- Where – 25 acres east of the Mountain Bell microwave tower, north of the main Vail interchange. The buildings would cover 1.2 acres, leaving 87 percent of the site open space or landscaped.- When: Currently under review by the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission and the Design Review Board. Project has to be approved by Oct. 31 to qualify for public financing. If ultimately approved by the Town Council, the project could be completed by Christmas 2003.- How – Proposed private/public development, with Denver-based Coughlin & Company as builder and operator, the town of Vail as landowner, subsidizing the project with 50-year free lease.- Why – To mitigate a perceived lack of affordable housing in Vail and compete with other areas in the Vail Valley for labor.- How much – One-year and six-month leases would start at $540 for a studio and go to $1,750 for a three-bedroom unit. Eighty-one units would be restricted to individual incomes of 50 to 60 percent below the median income, or about $8 to $13 in hourly wages. Annual rent increases would be capped by the Colorado Housing Authority.Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com


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