Whetstone has a big but…

I had to tease some of my county friends during a break at Monday’s town council meeting that they were sounding like stereotypical developers. They were there asking for alterations to understandings and agreements that had been made for expenses and collaboration, while changing the template on the income end to bring in more money. They rightfully responded that the big difference was that a stereotypical developer had the chance to make millions of dollars while they didn’t. They were trying to get a major workforce housing project approved for the North Valley. 

Fair, but…

And the “but” is big. It seems to revolve around quality-of-life issues for future Whetstone residents in terms of using mass transit, technical clarity over engineering questions, the idea of who ultimately pays how much for what, and future relationship issues with the One Valley (eye roll) partners over planning the corridor coming into Crested Butte.

 My take is that the county needs a written commitment from the town to extend water and sewer utilities to the project in order to obtain some financing and some state regulatory approval for what is at least a $132 million price tag. It ain’t cheap! They are looking at an expensive project and need to make the finances work. An initial estimate for a roundabout with an underpass giving pedestrians easy access to buses is estimated to be another $10 million and dropping that certainly would save money. But the town insists that is a crux point for the project and tied it to the utility extension, while county officials say they would support the idea of a roundabout in perpetuity…but it’s not up to them whether it happens.

But…the county approached the town asking that a so-called “will serve” letter be approved at the next council meeting on February 20 or risk losing the project. The town staff made clear to the council there were still a ton of unanswered questions over the engineering feasibility of the utility extension, that the county seemed comfortable not pushing the state on the town required roundabout with a pedestrian underpass, and while coordinated planning for the highway corridor was specifically part of the conditional utility extension agreement, the county recently started that planning process without any notice to the town. The county also implied Monday that the town might have to pick up some of the tab for the project. Staff reminded the council that some of their conditions in the conditional approval for the utility extension were not being met, and originally when the town asked if they would be expected to contribute funding, the county said no. Staff said those had been clear deal points for months and months. But…

Top tier county officials all argued Monday that they did not control the decisions made by the Colorado Department of Transportation and they could not guarantee the state would approve a roundabout with an underpass. The town argued it wouldn’t be hard to lay the groundwork and get a nod from CDOT for such an improvement. Rather, they said, the issue seemed more about money to pay for the work and it seemed the county was attempting to passively value engineer the intersection and cut back on costs. Town said no alternative to the roundabout had been presented but the dark cloud of a traffic light with a crosswalk and turning lanes hung over the discussion. Council focused on the roundabout as the major sticking point while indicating that corridor planning and engineering technicalities could probably be worked out and any gap in those communications and financing issues could be bridged. I don’t know if that is actually true, but… 

Money also came into play on the income side. As the reality of paying for a major 13-acre housing development began to unfold, the county found ways to redesign the project to add more units to the development. The latest number has grown to 255 units, which would bring in more rent money. While the aspirational goal was to have 100% of the units deed restricted for workforce housing, it now appears that at least 80% of the units will contain a deed restriction that include income limits, but those limits have gotten wider and more complicated as higher rents are needed to help cover costs. The county is still committed to having a large chunk of the units (40% of the 80%) go to people making under 120% of the Area Median Income but….

I don’t envy local officials doing the good work and trying to dig up $150 million. If Mark Walter calls me I’ll ask him to consider a donation… after all, some of his employees might be living there.

I remember when the Corner at Brush Creek was being vetted, I predicted that would be the first spot where a stop light would appear north of Gunnison. Welcome to Breck! But Crested Butte planners insisted on using a roundabout with a pedestrian underpass to mitigate that alternative while providing quality of life for future residents. Including a safe way to get to an RTA bus stop and get in and out of the subdivision with the roundabout appeared to have been accepted by all the parties and most of the neighbors. 

If the mainly unspoken alternative is what ends up happening, the intersection at Brush Creek and Highway 135 could possibly look more like one of the entrances to Park Meadows Mall with a stoplight and five or six through and turning lanes built to access Whetstone and the growing subdivisions up Brush Creek. If something like that goes in even “temporarily,” who will then push for the roundabout? While the current town council is intent on putting in place a trigger for a future CB annexation process for Whetstone, the place could feel more like Lone Tree urban sprawl than anything CB. 

The county has said for years that Whetstone would basically be filled with people currently living in Gunnison so it would not add vehicles to the highway entrance to town. I don’t buy that. Given population shifts, it seems there will still be plenty of people living in Gunnison and coming up valley to CB or the ski area for work and pleasure. Adding 600 more people two miles south of the CB Community School will also result in the need for more services and more workers to serve the workers. 

Whetstone will most certainly add to the local highway traffic and the expectation was that easy access to mass transit for residents with the pedestrian underpass would allow some living there to not use vehicles much, if at all. 

As a few councilmembers noted Monday, the roundabout design with pedestrian access to mass transit is a critical part of the whole project. Despite the county voicing support for a roundabout as the first choice, it seemed less critical to county officials. 

Look, I had hoped the aspirational goals of developing a community made up of working neighbors with a high quality of life would come to fruition. It still might. The chosen developer, Servitas, made the case for doing the entire project in one fell swoop and the county agreed. Great aspiration but…Cha ching!

It appears all the aspirations are running into 132 million pieces of reality and now some difficult decisions have to be made. As I have for years, I will advocate that quality-of-life aspects should be at the top of the decision list and that might mean having fewer but more spacious units for the working people and their toys. What’s the right financial balance? It might mean phasing the project to deal with cost issues and filling the units quickly. It might mean stating unequivocally the roundabout with its mass transit access is a permanent part of the project and not even considering the idea of not including the roundabout, but instead digging deeper to find the money to make it happen. It was mentioned Monday that there are government grants for such multi-modal projects and Lord knows the feds are releasing billions for infrastructure right now. Surely someone knows someone who can latch on to some of that money for a project close to being shovel-ready.

I have long maintained that the county administration has an impressive track record of accomplishing big projects, and despite these new voiced and insinuated challenges, I would not yet bet against that happening here. Their intent is noble, and the focus is on actively addressing the affordable housing issue in the valley. But it must not just happen, but happen in a way consistent with this community. That easy bus access is crucial. 

I teased my county friends they were sounding like stereotypical developers, and they demurred. And they are not stereotypical developers, but…based on the vibe Monday night, there is certainly more tension between the development applicant (the county) and the utility supplier (the town), both of whom are trying to get this project across the finish line. It could be time for a reset and realignment of the common goals and hard realities, and a hard discussion over which means to an end will result in a successful project. The road to urban sprawl that changes the character of our place can be paved with good intentions…but we can’t let that happen.  

—Mark Reaman

Check Also

More parking thoughts…

No Barbieland sequel from me this week although some of the discussion at Monday’s Crested …