Middle Creek housing plan: a must or a monster?
Members of the Vail Village Homeowners’ Association and to some extent Vail Resorts, say the project is too large and too visible. Town officials and members of the Vail Local Housing Authority defend the proposal that would be the town’s largest affordable-housing project since Vail Commons was built in 1997.The town Planning and Environmental Commission is scheduled take public comment about the proposal at 2p.m. today in the Town Council Chambers at the Vail Municipal Building.In the millIn the planning process for almost one year, Middle Creek, which also includes an early childhood learning center to house ABC School and Learning Tree on a sloping hill site north of the Main Vail I-70 interchange, is making its way through the approval process. Its developer hopes the complex will be approved by late fall and be ready for occupancy by Christmas 2003.Since the Vail Town Council mandated the housing authority to come up with a private development proposal on the town-owned parcel – throwing the land in for a 50-year free lease – the project has changed considerably, or in the words of housing authority member Sally Jackle, “it has contracted.”What was once a housing development of eight separate two- to five-story buildings with enclosed surface parking is now condensed into three buildings, the highest at five stories tall, perched atop a two-level underground parking structure.None of the buildings, according to Vail Town Planner Allison Ochs, is as tall as the site’s 104-feet landmark microvawe tower, which gave the parcel its former name of Mountain Bell.Rezoned in September 2001 to allow for dense housing, the number of units contemplated for the site hasn’t changed significantly, says Vail’s Director of Community Development Russell Forrest.”When the council issued the RFP (Request for Proposal) they contemplated 200 units,” he said.Who it’s forWhat also hasn’t changed is the target of the proposed development. Following an initial round of rumination, the housing authority focused on making Middle Creek a home for seasonal as well as year-round renting residents – a decision made on the basis of a needs assessment study as well as financial considerations for the developer, Denver-base Coughlin & Company, which will also manage the development and has raised as much as $15 million from state and federal housing authorities in exchange for rent control requirements.”There are restrictions on the amount of income 60 percent of the occupants can make. The rest goes at market rates,” explains Mark Ristow, chairman of the housing authority of the requirements attached.Rents will vary, with some apartments free of rent restrictions and others not. A studio will go for about $630 a month, while a three-bedroom apartment may cost $1,690 per month.But Ristow points out that rents will not increase when the market allows, but instead follow guidelines enforced by the Colorado Housing Authority.”Over time these units will become more and more affordable,” he says.OppositionBut the size and mass of the project, doesn’t have everyone clapping their hands and jumping up and down with joy.”Affordable housing in Vail is a double-edged sword,” says Alan Kosloff, president of the Vail Village Homeowners’ Association, a group representing year-round as well as second-home owners who by various estimates make up more than two-thirds of Vail’s residential property owners.The association, Kosloff says, is worried about the location – prominent at Vail’s main entrance – as well as the height and mass of the proposal.The location, Kosloff says, was chosen by design.”The reason the town chose the Mountain Bell site is that there isn’t a neighborhood to object to it,” he says referring to other aborted affordable housing projects, such as as Donovan Park, “where neighborhoods rose up and the town retreated.”Mountain Bell is ideal, because there isn’t a neighborhood to complain,” he says.There is a neighborhood, perched high atop the site and dominated by large up-scale homes along a softly curving Spraddle Creek Road. Kosloff, who says his view won’t be impeded “because of nice large pine trees,” says he would like to see the land left open.”Our feeling is that Vail’s vision and mission is that they want to be a world-class resort. I don’t believe and our organization doesn’t believe that a world-class resort puts an affordable housing project on the first site you see when you enter town.”The location, too, has the ski company worried, though not in quite as staunch an opposition as the homeowners’ association’s.”We are not going in all likelihood lease any of it,” says Porter Wharton III, senior vice president of public affairs for Vail Resorts.VR keeps distance”We still believe it is an appropriate site for employee housing, but we do have concerns about the proposal the way it is before the town at this point,” Wharton says. “The appearance, the architecture and the size of the project do concern us at the main entrance to town. I did hear someone say the other day that it is going to be the biggest structure in town, and be that as it may it is a massive project and the renderings that I saw did not look particularly attractive.”Ristow, who isn’t surprised or disappointed by the opposition – “that’s part of the public process we are in right now” – says the size, mass and appearance of the project is guided by money and consideration for the environment. So far the project’s total price tag has risen from $15 million to $23 million, as a consequence of the approval process.The location, he says, is ideal as ideal can be in a mostly built-out place like Vail.”It is a prominent site. There are few not prominent sites in Vail. The town is 1 mile wide. You could see a project like this one from anywhere as you drive through,” he says.The location, council members last summer decided, had an advantage over others because of its proximity to the village.”We believe it will bring some vibrancy and economic benefit back to town,” says Ristow. “Given the fact that it will add 250 beds to town.”The fact that the individual buildings are now higher and more distinct came as the result of the approval process and the wishes of many to disturb as little of the site as possible, Ristow says. “There is less cutting of trees. Therefore the buildings are taller, but the parking is hidden.”The fact that the ski company isn’t buying in – despite a gentleman’s agreement struck with the town two winters ago – won’t impact the success of the development, says Ristow.”This was never intended to be a housing project for Vail Resorts,” he says. “We have a housing needs assessment that tells us we can fill this.”More jobs comingWith 400 jobs coming on-line at the Ritz-Carlton in Bachelors Gulch and countless more jobs coming into existence when Home Depot and a new Super Wal-Mart open in Avon in the next few years, Vail remaining a player in the labor pool as well as the affordable housing market is of critical importance, Kosloff says.”If we don’t have the housing and Avon has the housing and the jobs, it will have consequences on our service industry,” he says.But the town maybe jumping the gun and building something too big and too visible in a place not convenient enough for the intended targeted tenants, Kosloff says.”There is certainly a need for affordable housing,” he says, adding that the town should take a look at building affordable housing on a lot the town is currently contracting to buy in West Vail.A better site?Known as Hud Wirth, the parcel just beyond Wendy’s “has what I would want in an affordable housing project. It’s easy to walk to the supermarket and other stores. I think that would be the right location,” Kosloff says.Ristow says the Hud Wirth parcel, at least according to preliminary surveys, is too steep for a housing project of the Middle Creek project’s dimensions.”I am not the one who can decide what gets build where,” he says. “The Hud Wirth parcel I believe is being bought with the intention of putting a third fire station on it. There is not enough land that is buildable. It’s a 12 townhomes type of deal. I don’t believe you could put 142 units on the site.”From a convenience point of view, Ristow says, “both locations offer equally easy access to convenience stores. The Middle Creek site will allow some workers to get to their jobs without using a car.”Ristow says there are always other options – some farther fetched than others.”We can always go to the Forest Service and see about a land swap or even building on public land,” he says. “Given the charge from the council and the developer’s needs and the public’s input, we believe the project is the best possible project on the most appropriate site available.”Kosloff says that the public has seen little of the project and needs to get familiarized with the drawings.”All I am saying is that people should have a chance to express their views to the council,” says Kosloff, who says he likes living in Vail because it is diverse – more so than Arrowhead or Bachelor Gulch.””I’m not going to commit suicide if this gets built,” he says. “But people should pay attention and think about what impression this will make on the Vail visitor.”Geraldine Haldner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at email@example.com.