Planning commission considers Whetstone project

Snow storage, transit, utilities and roundabout

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

The Whetstone housing project proposal has been an intensive ongoing agenda item for the Gunnison County planning commission, as the commission began reviewing Gunnison County’s sketch plan proposal last month for the 15-acre site along Highway 135 in the North Valley. The commission met with the Gunnison County staff and project team involved again last week and will hold at least one more work session and public hearing before considering next steps for potentially recommending sketch plan approval to Gunnison County commissioners. 

Requests have been made for clarity on utility service, adding a roundabout at Brush Creek Road across from the project, and a pedestrian underpass at its midpoint, but the project team has made clear that these details cannot yet be confirmed as each has complex processes in place. The next work session will take place November 17. 

The planning commission members took part in a site visit with county staff and the project team in mid-October and then spent several hours hearing an overview of the application from the county staff representative John Cattles, and consultants Danica Powell and jv DeSousa from Trestle Strategies. The commission asked questions in the first work session about water, wastewater and traffic. Thursday’s work session focused again on those topics, along with snow storage, public transit, and essential housing/deed restriction parameters. 

“We are continuing to move through the submittal. And the focus of our presentation today is site circulation, parking, snow storage and utilities,” said Cattles. He and DeSousa proceeded to review the layout, traffic patterns and potential for mass transit and an underpass. 

The site’s total unit count is 231 using primarily apartments and townhouses. 

“The majority, nearly two-thirds of the units on this site, are two-bedroom units which seem to be the best sized units for affordable housing, both for rental and if there were any units for sale,” said DeSousa. Another 25% are one-bedroom units, and about 10% are three-bedroom townhouses on the east and west sides of the site.  He said the buildings were organized to address streets and make them highly walkable and offer as many units as possible views across the valley to Whetstone Mountain and down the Slate River Valley. 

Foot and vehicle traffic

A boundary road is designed for the east and west sides that connect at the bottom end of the site, with one crossroad to the north. “We are pressing for and hoping to achieve two access points to Highway 135,” said DeSousa. We’ve been talking with CDOT [Colorado Department of Transportation] throughout the design process and as part of the forthcoming redesign of the Brush Creek intersection.” The plan is to accommodate a future setup for multimodal bus stops and an underpass in between those two access points. 

The northern access point to the neighborhood is set to align with a future roundabout at Brush Creek Road, and a midpoint pedestrian underpass “that would allow easy, safe access to the northbound side of 135 from the Whetstone neighborhood,” according to DeSousa, and would connect to a central greenway designed for pedestrian traffic.  

Walkability

“Another strong focus of the design…is that the streets be walkable so there are detached sidewalks on both sides of all the streets and the buildings are all oriented to address the streets,” continued DeSousa. He noted that particularly at the southern end of the site there are front porches facing the street to make a walkable space for people to move through, interact and “develop a sense of community.”

There are also trails throughout the neighborhood, including a boundary site circumnavigating it.

An open space within the site near the entrances is reserved for a potential future transit area with covered shelter, said Cattles. That would be built into the first floor space of a building designed to have vendor space available as well. “This could be for school bus stops, for people to shelter as they were making their way on to the bus stops at the highway, or if there is ever a recirculator bus; it kind of works for all options.”

Parking and snow storage

There are 423 parking spaces which is almost a one-to-one ratio of the number of bedrooms in the plan. Parking includes surface parking spaces, garages and off-and-on street parking. There are several green spaces for summer use that will be used for snow storage in winter if needed. 

“We’ve made plans to allow plows to push and stack as much as possible without needing to use loaders to move the snow,” said DeSousa. He said snow storage would also take up one side of the dual sidewalks if needed while leaving the other side for pedestrians. 

“Right now we are showing an area for snow stack on the site that is about 28% of all of the surface parking and vehicular circulation area,” he said. 

Cattles noted that much remains to be seen as the reality of snowstorms tests the various designs and some fine tuning is always possible.

Roundabout and potential underpass

Cattles said the Brush Creek roundabout is in progress but the order in which things will happen is uncertain. Cattles confirmed that the county submitted a roundabout request to CDOT to improve the intersection even before Whetstone ever came up, but it is a very lengthy process. 

“So we want to make sure we’re designing a site that can accommodate the road as it exists and the roundabout potentially coming a year or two after construction begins on Whetstone. We really hope that those happen at the same time, but it’s difficult to predict,” he said.

Funding and CDOT approval is not yet determined for an underpass, but the project team is pursuing that as well. 

Utilities and an MOU with Crested Butte

As for water and sewer, the county’s preferred option is still to connect to Town of Crested Butte for water and sanitary sewer, and the county completed a capacity study of the town’s facilities at its own cost. An engineer with the project team described the details of potential utility layouts. 

“The site layout really made for a straightforward utility design,” he summarized, including a looped water system around the area and cutting through the center. He discussed the alternatives if connecting to Crested Butte does not pan out. 

Based on the completed study, the county has formally requested that the town of Crested Butte agree to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to proceed exploring how to provide service to the site. The town will consider this in a work session on November 21, and if approved a second engineering study would determine if the town utilities need any infrastructure upgrades to handle the new load of the Whetstone water treatment and sewage. Then based on negotiations to that effect another formal vote would be needed from the town council to approve extending utilities. 

“The next level of engineering will take some time to complete,” said Cattles, and he would expect that process to take at least six months. 

Assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano said if the sketch plan were approved, a likely condition of it would be resolving these utility details that are complex. The utility plan would have to be confirmed before preliminary plan could be approved.

Details, details…

Questions came from the planning commission regarding who would handle road, sidewalk and other on-site maintenance, which Cattles said would be determined in negotiations with a developer. Questions were also raised about transit agreements with Mountain Express or the RTA. Cattles said the RTA has commented that it prefers to stay on the highway and have an underpass accessing a bus stop on its existing routes. He said in the meantime they have asked for RTA input on street designs for school bus access and Mountain Express service should those materialize (Mountain Express does not currently service that area). The RTA has submitted formal comments and recommendations for the project.

Planning commissioners also asked for more information on the utilities, alternatives and supply limitations. Land use and affordable housing project consultant Willa Williford chimed in on the town’s involvement, explaining that it will hinge heavily on the definition of essential housing and the percentage of units that are deed restricted. “So that is more in the political policy making space than the technical standards,” she said. 

An extensive conversation ensued regarding area median income and deed restrictions, and Cattles said that minimum standards of 40% being for essential housing can be part of the Request for Proposals, “but we won’t know that final bid until close to the end.” Cattles added that water supply limitations could also come from the town if it provides those services on any level. 

The next planning commission work session on Whetstone will be on November 17 and include an overview of the site plan, compatibility, building size and form and density. Commissioners asked for more information during that meeting on the AMI figures and how they factor into the project’s purchase prices, rents and resident eligibility. 

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