Whetstone project team commits to 80% deed restrictions

One more planning commission work session and then public hearing

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

As the Whetstone workforce housing development project team wraps up a series of detailed presentations to the Gunnison County Planning Commission regarding the 231-unit housing development proposal for the county-owned parcel along Highway 135 across from Brush Creek Road, planning commission members have asked for a few remaining clarifications. In the latest work session, the project team discussed details at length before deciding to hold one more work session on December 1 and to schedule a joint public hearing with Gunnison County commissioners in January.  

The November 17 meeting focused on essential housing and deed restrictions, building sizes and locations, and general design employed in the sketch plan which must be recommended by the planning commission for county commissioner consideration before potential approval to move into the preliminary plan phase. 

“We’ve been hearing from referral agencies throughout the work sessions, but we’ve also been receiving letters from community members,” said land use and affordable housing project consultant Willa Williford. “I think what we’re hearing is general support and initially, confusion and angst around the percentage of deed restrictions—which I hope we can address today.

“The building sizes on the highway are also a hot topic,” she acknowledged. She also addressed questions around the timing and process of Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) installing an underpass and round-about on Highway 135 as big questions heading into preliminary plan. Scale and livability were the primary focus of the day. 

Design elements

Project architect jv DeSousa said the current site plan originated from a diverse group of Crested Butte residents, town representatives, county representatives, project participants and a broad base of other stakeholders during the 2021 design charette.  “Very early on in the process, it was in the blank page state,” he said, with few preconceived ideas. DeSousa spoke to how each side of the site had been designed to complement the areas adjacent to it, whether that be residential, industrial or natural landscapes. 

There were many questions from planning commission members about building size and scale, as the proposal include a building as large as 42,000 square feet and three stories tall.

“Some of the larger buildings that are proposed at Whetstone are similar in scale to other buildings that have been built within the North Valley,” said DeSousa, referring to Skyland Lodge and Anthracite Place among others. “I think Pitchfork in particular is a really representative equivalent to what Whetstone might be. There are buildings that are three stories tall with some tuck-under parking. There are two story buildings, it’s a similar mix of structures in terms of their scale.” He said the tallest buildings in Whetstone would appear as two stories from the highway due to a large berm in between and a plan for tree clusters to break up the space.

He said the math works out that Whetstone would hold about 15 units per acre, where Pitchfork is 13 units per acre. “Part of achieving the 15 units per acre is a number of very small units that go in the larger structures, and that allows us to keep some of that open space, the greenway and some other open areas across the site for the residents to enjoy,” he said.

Planning commission member Laura Puckett Daniels asked for the square footage of these similar examples. Assistant county manager of community and economic development Cathie Pagano answered that Skyland Lodge is 35,000 square feet, Anthracite Place is 22,000 and the Marcellina apartment buildings are 34,500 and 42,000 square feet. 

“Whetstone Industrial Park has a maximum height of 45 feet, and there is a size limitation on light industrial buildings but not heavy industrial buildings. Riverland has some different criteria,” she said, that included more complex measurements.

Defining essential housing

Commission member Andy Sovick asked for more information about how essential housing and workforce deed restrictions work within the project scope, as the definitions had come up in previous meetings. The project team committed that at least  80% will be deed restricted, and the hope expressed was to drive the costs down further for affordability. Essential housing as defined by the Gunnison County Housing Authority, explained Williford, means 40% of the units are deed restricted to 120% of area median income (AMI) or less. The workforce definition is that residents preside in and have primary employment in Gunnison County. 

“Those deed restrictions pretty uniformly across the county now require that 80% of your income is made in the valley and you work 30 hours per week or more,” said Williford. 

She reviewed that HUD, which ties to federal resources for some types of housing development, defines low income as below 80% AMI. “Moderate income is up to 120% of AMI and in state funding sources recently, a lot of recognition has been given to rural and resort areas as having to address the missing middle,” she said. 

Williford said the project would absolutely meet the essential housing definition of 40% being restricted to under 120% AMI. “We are actually committing to double that, with 80% deed restricted units,” she said, which could allow more flexibility around either higher AMIs elsewhere on the site or eliminating them for higher income earning local workforce members. 

“We know that the majority of the need is under 120% of AMI. So, the needs of the community and market force will drive our AMI down. The project finance and construction cost will drive the AMI up. And those will be in a push-pull state,” she concluded, until a final development partnership is determined. She recommended some income diversity, because “monoculture neighborhoods tend to be less vibrant.”

The project team spent time unpacking AMI and real CB examples of local job openings and wages as listed in the Crested Butte News, and potential costs for different sized families to buy a deed-restricted home. Puckett Daniels noted that the affordability gap between wages and rent or mortgage costs still seemed unattainable for most jobs, using an example of a family working locally, making $88,000 and trying to buy a $350,000 home with a $70,000 down payment. 

“I’m glad you’re considering this as a starting point and how we can make it more affordable. Because it’s hard for me to see how this is actually affordable for folks that live here…and this helps me understand the 20% that might be deed restricted but not AMI restricted,” she said.

Tall buildings

Planning commission members said walking through the decision-making process with the project team had been valuable, especially pertaining to how density in some areas allows open space elsewhere and overall lower costs. 

“I think that really did help me understand how this is the most efficient use of the site,” commented Puckett Daniels. She said she also appreciated seeing how building masses and heights related to the neighbors to the north and south, and architectural considerations blend in. “It seems like it’s a very thoughtful design.” 

But she expressed concerns about the large buildings (such as building 12) being close to the highway and facing a parking lot on the other side, which do not achieve the named values of the project like walkability, access to neighbors and access to nature.

“It makes me wonder if there is a better way to orient the buildings so that everybody has access to those benefits and not just the privileged majority…and if that’s a compromise that we need to make for affordability or for other things, then let’s just say it out loud,” she said. 

DeSousa and Cattles said the constraints of the project, including snow plowing and traffic patterns have so far necessitated that design, but that the feedback is helpful. Cattles also acknowledged that some of these details could and likely would change once a developer gets involved with their own ideas. 

“As we bring in developer partners they are going to make this better and smarter and more feasible, and so us tweaking it now isn’t where I hope to spend a lot of time,” said Williford. “But I think putting more thought around the design en masse…and having that more concrete understanding that it doesn’t work yet is what we want.”

Cattles said if the commission chooses to recommend the project as it is, the main piece that won’t change is that density will go where it is laid out in general. “But there are compromises that need to be made one way or another.”

Pagano said they could include conditions with language such as ‘the applicant shall explore opportunities to reorient buildings 10 and 12 as how they relate to the highway and how they align with the values of the project.’

“And you have the opportunity to say, no that doesn’t work at all,” said Pagano. There were a few other details, such as the walk-up flats, that also came up as not meeting the standard on project values given that they faced a parking area and lacked access to nature. 

Laundry list

Members asked for several more items to satisfy their questions and concerns. This includes a chart of options for ongoing site maintenance, evidence that transit oriented development in buildings next to highways makes streets safer, and specific wording around essential housing requirements. The project team will also provide a summary of the commission’s outstanding questions, a line-by-line summary of the remaining standards to consider and an example of another decision document from a major impact land use change approval for the commission to reference. Pagano said the project team would provide this information at the next work session on December 1.

The public hearing is scheduled for January 19 and at Sovick’s request, this will allow time for an additional work session in December if members feel it is needed.

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