Vail at the Crossroads

Must Peter Knobel destroy the village to save it?

Knobel did just that, adjusting the roof lines again to drop the height by a few more feet. And in April 2005, he earned the commission's unanimous approval for his plans, which now included $1.1 million in "public art" and a covered bus stop.

The next step was to get the okay from the Vail Town Council -- but that body was already divided. Donovan and Cleveland worried that the project exceeded zoning restrictions and said it needed to be pared back still more. Otherwise, the excessive height would dominate the airspace of the buildings around it and possibly inspire other developers to upsize their plans.

"Anyone who makes their living in Vail, they understand that people do not go on expensive vacations to a city in the mountains. They want to come to a village," Donovan says. "It doesn't matter how big it is, it doesn't matter how expensive it is, they want to come to a village. The village concept is what we sell. And as soon as we start talking about Vail as a town of high buildings in an urban setting, you can kiss it goodbye."

At contentious public hearings last summer, citizens filled the crowded council chambers to speak both for and against the project, drawing a clear line between the new Vail and the old. Many of the town's longtime residents argued that Knobel's plans were the antithesis of the Alps-like feel that the founders had worked so hard to create, the charming village that had made Vail the number-one ski town in North America for the past thirty years.

But Knobel's supporters countered that the old zoning laws were archaic. If Vail wanted to retain its top-of-the-line status, it needed to evolve. Besides, they said, Solaris wasn't some hideous glass tower poking toward the heavens. The architecture and materials would be of a high quality -- which was more than could be said for the dozens of clapboard condominiums built in the '70s and '80s that fill the valley. Besides, the building would not be much bigger than the buildings surrounding it -- and the only view it would block was of the freeway. Some people even suggested that the project would cut down on noise from I-70, one of the village's most persistent problems.

Supporters pointed to other benefits. Solaris has the potential to bring in $1.4 million in annual sales-tax revenue and doesn't require any of the tax-increment financing schemes that cities often shell out to developers, they said. In fact, according to Solaris's lead planner, Dominic Mauriello, the project will pay for $4 million in streetscape improvements on East Meadow Drive.

The discussion continued on through three hearings, each more than four hours long, each full of bitter and contentious talk. And on August 2, the town council came out three to four against the project, with the majority saying that Knobel's plans needed still more adjustments.

But instead of going back to the drawing board, an exasperated and angry Knobel announced the next day that he was pulling the proposal, and that the decaying Crossroads would stay in its current state indefinitely.

"At the time they say to you, 'You're close,'" Knobel remembers. "And when we were close, we cut our building 10 percent in size, and they'd come back and say, 'You're close.' So at that point it became kind of a game. We said, 'Listen, we've got a great project. If it's not this council, it'll be the next council or the council after that or the council after that.'"

On the surface, it seemed that Knobel had surrendered. But the group Citizens for Change was already gearing up, registering voters -- particularly younger residents, families, seasonal workers and business owners -- and hosting its own debates. Although one of his own employees was leading the charge, Knobel says he gave no money to the campaign. "So no developer sat here and bought 500 radio spots and $50,000 worth of ads or anything like that," he adds.

Behind the scenes, though, Donovan says Knobel mounted a "smear campaign" against the two councilmembers who most opposed him -- Cleveland and herself -- and "let everybody know he was out to get us. Which is why I decided to run again." Also running was a newcomer, Mark Gordon, who supported Solaris.

With Vail's population of 4,500 residents -- about 3,800 of them registered voters -- it doesn't take much to sway a council election. And in a surprise upset, Donovan and Cleveland were both voted out, and Gordon was elected.

Knobel declared the election results a public mandate for his project. Within a month, he'd resubmitted his plans to the planning commission, which quickly passed them on to town council. On March 21, the council reversed its vote, approving Knobel's project four to three and looking to a 2007 start date for construction.

"I always say Vail is a Disneyland made out of real things," Donovan notes. "It's a pretend place -- it's also a real place that we live in -- but what we sell is this pretend European village that people don't get to just go to on the weekends, but they do because Vail's here. But it's still a community, a mountain community. It's not a suburb or a city. Even if it technically became that, we can't call it that. So it's not about what it will become, it's the product we sell. And if they want to make it all glass and chrome, then we're not selling what we've been so successful at for so long."

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