By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
When asked for a brief biography, Knobel describes being born and raised in Long Island, New York, and going to college at American University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a degree in real estate and finance. He moved to Manhattan in the '80s and began working with Related Companies, one of the nation's largest developers of high-end real estate (including the Time Warner Center), where he eventually became a partner. He was also a partner in Gilbert Charles Beylen Inc. (the third name in the title is Knobel's middle name), which the New York Times dubbed "one of the city's largest real-estate marketing concerns" in 1984. Knobel mentions that he founded National Fiber Network, a company dealing in fiber optics that turned into the multibillion-dollar, publicly traded Metromedia Fiber Network that wound up filing for bankruptcy in 2002. While he declines to give a specific number for his net worth, he's financing the $250 million Solaris project out of his own pocket.
Back in 1996, Knobel bought a mansion at 20 East 73rd Street in Manhattan for $5.8 million, then did a $7 million renovation that included adding a wine cellar and a basketball court in the basement, according to the New York Observer. In the dusty aftermath of 9/11, though, Knobel "liquidated" several of his big-money properties -- the 73rd Street residence went for $19.5 million -- and moved with his wife and two kids to the safest place they could think of: Vail, Colorado, where Knobel had owned a winter home since the mid-'90s.
Technically, Knobel liked to think of himself as retired, but "for fun" built two multimillion-dollar houses, one on Spraddle Creek Drive and the other on Forest Road, and remodeled the Tyrolean Restaurant up the street into a residential loft. County records also show him owning ranchland near Glenwood Springs. "We built the three nicest houses in Vail," he says. "I don't know how to build junk here." And he would have developed five or six more houses by now, he adds dryly, "if I hadn't gotten knee-deep in Crossroads."
That project had its genesis in 2002, when Knobel skied through the backcountry behind Vail Mountain to Minturn and got a ride back to town from an acquaintance who lived at Crossroads. The friend mentioned that the complex's current owner, Oscar Tang, had tried to redevelop Crossroads but had trouble getting the condo owners to sign on. Knobel said he thought the property had a lot of potential -- and three months later, Tang called and asked if he might be interested in it. Although Knobel declined at the time, his curiosity was piqued, and in January 2004 he bought Crossroads for $13.5 million.
Knobel enlisted local high-end real-estate broker Ron Byrne to help him maneuver the painstaking process of buying out all of the Crossroads condo owners. "I took the job fully thinking it was going to take ten years to get the job done," Byrne remembers. Like other development groups over the years, including East West Partners, Byrne had made an unsuccessful run at redeveloping Crossroads in the early '90s. It was Knobel's determination -- and his willingness at times to overpay for units -- that made things finally fall into place.
"I thought from day one the biggest obstacle was to get 22 condo owners to agree to sell," Knobel recalls. "And that was the easiest part."
Knobel is no stranger to mega-developments; in New York he completed projects "fifty times bigger" than what he's proposing with Solaris, projects that also came in for their fair share of controversy. "In New York, they zone," he says. "They pretty much say, 'The zoning now is R10; you can build ten times the lot size. You can build the building as tall as you want, you can shape it like a lipstick, you can make it look like a pyramid, you can do anything you want.' Here in Vail you're getting into, 'What is the window?' and 'Where's the flower box?' The mayor likes flowers. He said to my building originally: 'I like your building, but can you put flower boxes all over?'"
At that particular recollection, Cohn jumps in: "I mean, you're talking about a project that's $250 million in construction, and you want to talk about flower boxes before you approve the project?"
For Knobel, the inspiration behind Solaris was the struggle to find activities for his kids in the evening. Like many families in Vail, he found himself driving the family down-valley into Edwards or Avon to catch a movie or go to an arcade. If the town didn't find a way to revitalize its commercial core in the next decade, he realized, Vail could find itself in a serious crisis. But when he tried to deliver that message, the so-called old guard dismissed the newcomer.
"They say, 'We know how to do it. We started this town,'" Knobel says. "The truth is that if this town didn't have this mountain, it would be bankrupt, gone, finished. No one's coming to this Bavarian bullshit. They come in because it snowed this morning and it was a powder day and we went and did two hours of skiing and then we went to work and it was great. Okay. But you come back here in eight days and us actual residents have no place to eat. Every restaurant says, 'We're outta here! Adios! We're going to Moab!'