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But that product is already changing.
Heading west on the frontage road toward the Holiday Inn, you pass Vail's most distinguishing feature: not the mountains, but construction cranes. They represent the infrastructure "renaissance" that boosters tout on www.futurevail.com as a "new chapter in Vail's legacy" in the push to become the "premier mountain resort community in the world."
Inside the Holiday Inn is the West Side Cafe, the place where locals like Jim Lamont and Rob Ford come to discuss politics. They used to go to a different spot in Vail Village, but it was torn down for a new development.
Ford is one of 35 residents working to collect enough signatures -- the target is 388 -- to put Crossroads' redevelopment to a public vote. Knobel's plan would be a dramatic change, he points out, and a referendum would give the whole town a chance to make the decision collectively. "With the old guard, unless their concerns are addressed, they are going to be cranky forever," he says. "You really can't appease these people until you give them the right to vote."
Tanned, with a voice like Casey Kasem, Ford refers to the old guard in the third person -- but the 55-year-old is the first to admit that he probably falls in this category, too. After Pete Siebert, a vet from the 10th Mountain Division, got together with Earl Eaton to found Vail Associates and start building a village at the base of the mountain, Ford's father bought one of the first partnership interests in Vail in 1963. Unlike at old mining towns like Aspen or Breckenridge that were starting to sprout ski areas, "there were no buildings here at all," Ford remembers. "Everything had to be built from the ground up. It was real pioneer stuff."
After college, Ford settled in Vail in 1973 to work in real estate. He spent four years on the town council in the late '90s, the last two as mayor. By now the mountain where he had skied as a child had grown into Vail Resorts, the most successful ski area in North America. The town at the base, while not owned by the ski company, was emulated by resorts around the country. "The founding fathers put it together in a low-density format," Ford says. "And they did it on purpose." From the beginning, a 1 percent real-estate transfer tax went into a fund to acquire open space, resulting in the preservation of about 30 percent of otherwise developable ground in the valley.
But in the last decade, Vail has faced growing competition -- not just from other mega-resorts like Whistler or Lake Tahoe, but from the towns down-valley. With a full-time population of just 43,000, Eagle County did $2.8 billion in real-estate sales last year. "As all of this is growing," Ford says, "the Vail inside the mystical town is working very hard to go the other way."
As director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association, Lamont represents one of the most powerful but unseen constituencies in town. About 74 percent of the properties in Vail belong to "part-time residents," a politically correct way of saying people who live somewhere else most of the year -- and are legal, voting residents of those other places. "People invest in a lifestyle," Lamont points out, "particularly when you're dealing with such a wealthy group. Many people don't have a lot of confidence in the younger generation really understanding the sophistication and acumen needed to run a world-class resort."
For his regional-planning masters' degree from the University of Colorado, Lamont wrote his thesis on the physical and social aspects of Vail's urbanization. The founders then hired him as Vail's first town planner, and one of his early jobs was to draft a master plan. The town has gone through several master plans since then, including one for Lionshead and another for Vail Village, and is now working on a new one for West Vail. "The town of Vail is a very paternalistic organization, and it's only beholden to the local property owners," Lamont says. "So it doesn't reflect the community, and when you're talking about the community, you're not exclusively talking about the full-time residents. The community is full of part-time residents."
To illustrate its concerns with the Crossroads redevelopment, Lamont's group gave a 23-page memorandum to the city in June 2005, complete with aerial photos and diagrams, then followed up with two letters later that year. Although the Vail Village Homeowners Association is not part of the petition drive, it was, and remains, concerned with the town's Special Development District process.
As the town aged and certain buildings needed to be replaced, the town council would encourage redevelopment by allowing greater densities on individual parcels. But instead of throwing out or adjusting all of the municipal zoning codes, the council would create a Special Development District (SDD) and then squeeze "public benefits" and design standards out of the developer. Such a tool works in a town like Vail, where the demand to develop is high and each project can be taken on a case-by-case basis. For "public benefits," the town traditionally negotiated for affordable housing and streetscaping and lighting.