RMBL looking beyond Gothic, perhaps to Mt. Crested Butte

Campus near Snodgrass would include housing, laboratories, visitor’s center

by Mark Reaman

In a move that could expand the physical reach of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), a partnership between the lab and Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) is in the works to possibly bring some facilities to Mt. Crested Butte. A potential new RMBL campus on six acres near the Snodgrass trailhead would include a visitor’s center, lab buildings, administrative offices and employee housing.

CBMR is donating the acreage to RMBL and in exchange the research facility will build at least 17 units of affordable housing that CBMR is on the hook for with the town. The feasibility of such a project is being studied and RMBL executive director Ian Billick is looking for feedback on the idea. The goal is to submit a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application to the town Planning Commission in May.

Review could take from four to six months. If the project is approved and funding is obtained, ground could be broken in 2019 but 2020 is more likely. Billick said the viability of the project would be determined in the next 18 months. The transaction is contingent upon successful completion of the PUD process with the town of Mt. Crested Butte and fundraising.

“Understanding the world has never been more important,” said Billick. “We are building one of the nation’s leading scientific institutions right here in the Gunnison Valley. Expanding RMBL’s footprint at the Snodgrass Trailhead in Mt. Crested Butte will enable year-round programs, which are currently impossible due to Gothic’s inaccessibility in winter. This expansion will further RMBL’s mission to accelerate discoveries into the ecosystem processes that replenish the world’s air, water and food supplies.

“The location was chosen for a variety of reasons, including its proximity to public transportation,” Billick continued. “The campus will support public use of the Gothic Valley, and will maintain and enhance public access to the Snodgrass Trailhead, which is important to the community, the resort and RMBL.”

RMBL also seeks to establish additional facilities outside of Gothic to meet the increased demand from researchers. Billick added, “RMBL’s unique resources attract scientists from around the world. In the last four years alone, use of these facilities has grown by 50 percent. Some of the world’s top scientists and students are being turned away due to lack of space.”

The construction of the campus would be phased. It would start with housing that could come in the form of dormitory rooms that would house RMBL students in the summer and CBMR seasonal employees in the winter. Billick said ideally, the initial phase one construction would include at least 20 to 25 units, with a mix of different types of units to fit RMBL’s summer demand.

CBMR Vice President Erica Mueller sees that as a good match. “At this point, it is still a bit too early to comment on the seasonal housing aspect of this plan,” she said. “However, it naturally sounds like a good fit for RMBL to use summer housing and CBMR to fill the units with seasonal employees during the winter months and as such it is a good match and partnership.”

Billick said the project all comes down to funding.

“As we work out details through the PUD process, the budget will become more clear,” Billick explained. ”Our rough cost estimates for the site work and the housing are somewhere between $3 million and $4 million.”

“CBMR is honored to help RMBL create year-round facilities to enhance its contribution to field science and education,” said Mueller. “They provide an incredible asset to our community and the scientific community with the work they do. If there is a way for us to help facilitate that and flourish for generations to come, then we are proud to be a part of it. This well-thought-out project also gives RMBL, CBMR and the town the opportunity to accomplish many goals and address current issues facing the community, including seasonal housing, making it a win-win for all. We hope that RMBL can start as quickly as they can, for the benefit to them as an organization and of course to help both organizations out with providing workforce housing.”

Part of the PUD process would be figuring out logistics of the site. “This is a complicated parcel,” Billick explained. “We want to enhance non-motorized winter recreation on Snodgrass and the Gothic corridor. In summer, we need to ensure pedestrian access on Snodgrass and smooth vehicular flow to and from the Gothic corridor. There is a settling pond on the site and we have to provide vehicular access to the private property to the west. The design challenges include creating a campus feeling, separating pedestrian and vehicular traffic to the west, and providing some privacy for residents as recreational use grows.”

RMBL has not decided how much laboratory and educational space is a priority with the new campus. In terms of building sizes, Billick said the lab wants to keep buildings to scales similar to, or smaller than, what is in the neighborhood. The desire is to keep buildings to one or two stories in order to minimize visual impacts.

“The facility would enhance our ability to sponsor year-round K-12 programs, provide winter science programs for the public, and move at least some of our summer outreach programs into Mt. Crested Butte,” said Billick. “With an increasing interest in understanding water and snow, and a change in the type of research we are supporting, there is already more research happening at RMBL outside summer. With laboratory and office space available year-round, we anticipate that a year-round scientific community will develop.”

“RMBL’s board of trustees has endorsed this visionary project,” noted RMBL board chair Kurt Giesselman. “If successful, it will increase the local inventory of affordable housing while significantly increasing the nation’s capacity to support field research. We are extremely grateful to CBMR for the opportunity to explore the viability of this project.”

RMBL is encouraging people to provide feedback to RMBL’s facilities director, Steve Jennison, or to Billick. “There will be plenty of opportunities through the PUD process to provide feedback, but the earlier we get it, the easier it will be to try to incorporate it into design,” summarized Billick. ”We think a year-round scientific campus for field research that supports K-12 education programs and enhances backcountry access fits the Crested Butte community. It will be a unparalleled facility, not just in the U.S., but in the world.”

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