Vail at the Crossroads
The three tourists stare at the sculpture in front of a fur boutique advertising Black Diamond female mink for "only $3,488." A life-sized bronze of a young woman holding a sun hat and flowers, the piece has a classical vibe -- but the woman's metal dress is dyed a bright, cartoony blue.
"Like everything else in Vail, it's probably symbolic," one tourist explains to her companions. "Of what, I have no idea."
They continue on their way, laughing at the statue, at the street, at the weirdness of strolling through a faux Austrian village in the middle of the American West, in a town that didn't even exist until 1962, when a bunch of enterprising World War II vets got a kooky idea to build a little piece of Bavaria in their own back yard. The trio of tourists amble over the cobbled side streets, passing Gore Creek and the much-photographed Covered Bridge. They ignore a tired-looking complex languishing next to the Vail Village parking structure -- but more than the standard, stunning postcard shots, Crossroads has come to symbolize Vail. This building stands at the heart of the most contentious and extraordinary redevelopment battle the town has ever seen.
Over the past two years, Peter Knobel's proposal to tear down and rebuild the property has inspired numerous agonizing public hearings, accusations of political skullduggery and the ousting of two Vail Town Council members. And last month, just when Knobel thought he had the project in the bag, his opponents engineered a mid-summer vote on the matter, when the public could decide to cut the development -- and the developer -- down to size permanently.
Crossroads not only stands at one of the town's most prominent intersections, it's a convergence point for wealth, power and mountain-sized egos, for small-town politics with big-city politicking. The official arguments may focus on topics like height and zoning, but citizens on both sides of the debate see the struggle as more epic, as a fight between Vail's old-time founders and its younger newcomers for what the town is and what it should become. Emotions are high, and the stakes are huge. Because despite its theme-park attributes, Vail is a real place, with real residents who live and work here, who are born and die here, and who love and hate each others' guts -- all within town limits.
Like the facades of many of Vail's early buildings, Crossroads is faded and cracked after decades of exposure to sunlight and snow. Built in 1969 on the East Meadow Drive corridor, the 60,000-square-foot, horseshoe-shaped complex wraps around a parking lot with three stories of condos sitting above a ground floor of retail. The two biggest tenants -- Clark's Market and the Crossroads Cinema -- both pulled out last month, citing slow business and deteriorating facilities.
Above the local-friendly Art's Bar and Grill is a once-empty space where Peter Knobel sits, slouching coolly in a hardwood chair, checking text messages on a cell phone that occasionally buzzes with a Spice Girls-esque ring tone. This is the leasing office and showroom for his project, dubbed Solaris, which Knobel hopes will be the dawn of a new age not just for Vail Village, but the entire town. "Like the rays of the sun, Solaris will touch and be enjoyed by everyone," Knobel wrote in a syrupy op-ed published in the Vail Daily on March 21, the same day he finally won approval from the town council. On the walls around him are colorful drawings and architectural schematics detailing 600,000 square feet of luxury condos, restaurants and shops. The plans include a ten-lane bowling alley, a three-screen movie theater, a Dave & Buster's-style arcade and an underground parking garage with room for 338 cars.
Across the room, Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi examines diagrams for Solaris, which has the same general shape as Crossroads but will be six times larger. Instead of a surface-level parking lot, Solaris cradles a 30,000-square-foot public plaza that will feature a free ice rink.
"Four to five thousand people could be in that space," explains Craig Cohn, Knobel's director of leasing and his right-hand man. "The retail could still operate around it."
Today, G. Love is playing a concert in Gerald Ford Park, three-quarters of a mile outside of town. "In a snowy field, it'll be half mud," Cohn points out, urging Menconi to imagine the Street Beat concert series set in the new Solaris complex instead. "When this public plaza exists, there is no snow, because the pavers are heated, the sound's already set up, there are restaurants and bars for people to come in and out of, and it will work here in the middle of town! And when it's over, 5,000 people will then disperse through town at 7:30 at night."
Menconi nods, then starts asking questions. The high-end cinema will have a total of 415 seats, Cohn says, and the town's outdoor noise ordinance will hopefully be adjusted to allow for later events once current mayor Rod Slifer, a partner in a real-estate firm who has continually voted against the project, is term-limited off the council in 2007.
Knobel lets Cohn do most of the talking to prospective tenants and officials like Menconi, who support Solaris and have trouble seeing what all the fuss is about. When Knobel does speak, it's with a halting, no-nonsense New York accent that seems more suited to the boardroom of The Apprentice than a chat on East Meadow Drive. Supporters and friends of Knobel use phrases like "self-assured," "bold" and "knows what he wants" to describe him. His detractors use less flattering attributions: "egotistical," "pushy" and "won't take no for an answer." Although his personality is clearly East Coast, the 49-year-old is dressed for a laid-back mountain community, wearing a casual T-shirt and jeans. He has an athletic build and a crop of hair that pokes rebelliously above his olive-hued, angular face.
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!'
"Well, that's not a 365-day-a-year community," he says, then laughs. "And they are outta here. But I've got kids. Until May 25, they're still in school. [The opposition] doesn't understand that."
Knobel could live anywhere, but he thinks Vail is the best place for his family. Where else in this world can you ride your bike downhill and be at your work in five minutes? Where else in this world can you be at work and tell your guys, let's go pedal up to the top of Vail Pass? "It's nirvana," he says, pausing for a moment to consider his own life.
So when you're living in nirvana, why continue to go through the endless hearings and debates over Solaris? "Because this is what you fight and you do," Knobel explains. "And it's fun. He doesn't think it's fun," he adds, pointing to Cohn, now lounging in an overstuffed chair. "But you know, it's fun for me."
The fight isn't all fun, though. Asked about a 1997 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Knobel's face gets dark and his voice strained as he asks what the settlement has to do with a story about a development, adding, "You should think about where the information came from."
The information started with a tip leaked to Vail Daily reporter Edward Stoner, who then wrote an article titled "Knobel Says He Didn't Know About Alleged Scam" for the December 8, 2005, edition. The story discussed a company Knobel owned called Beylen Telecom, which had a client that dealt in Internet pornography, and it gave legs to rumors already circulating about Knobel's past connections to the adult-entertainment industry (see sidebar).
Losing isn't fun, either. For Knobel, losing is not an option. He'll get his project done now or ten years from now, he promises, and in the meantime, he'll still eat in the same restaurants and take summer trips to Europe. It's not about the money. At this point, it's about much, much more.
In her six years on the Vail Town Council, Diana Donovan was known for asking developers a lot of questions. "And I don't ask about what's right, because I don't have to do anything about it," she says. "I ask about what's wrong, so I have a reputation for being negative. "
Last November, Donovan lost her re-election bid after she gave a thumbs-down to the Solaris project. Dick Cleveland, another councilmember who asked tough questions, was voted out, too. Donovan blames their loss on Citizens for Change, the advocacy group led by Craig Cohn and another local developer, Mark Cervantes, who is seeking to build in West Vail.
"I think what they really mean is 'Citizens for No Rules or Regulations,'" says Donovan, looking at the Solaris documents and drawings that she usually keeps in file folders in a large plastic organizer but are now spread across her kitchen table. "Because there's been so much development in Vail within the rules. And Crossroads is the first development that came to town and said, 'We're not going by the rules. We're doing our own thing. This is what we want, and this is what we will get.' And lo and behold, they did."
Donovan moved to Vail in 1965 for a job and soon met her future husband, ski instructor John Donovan, who was elected to the first town council and served fourteen years. Diana served on the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission for fourteen years before she earned her own council seat. During her years of public service, she saw quite a few developments come through the pipeline, but never any as alarming as the proposal for Solaris, which she says "would be the biggest mistake Vail has ever made."
And she doesn't hesitate to share that opinion. Her 1,847-word letter printed in the Vail Daily on April 19 detailed "the misrepresentations and the manipulation of facts on behalf of the Crossroads project," not only expanding on the most common argument against the development -- its 99-foot roof lines -- but also questioning the economic viability of the bowling alley and such modifications as the public plaza. (Knobel wants to "build a condo project where every unit has a view," she said.) Donovan concluded with the charge that Knobel has gotten "preferential treatment" compared with other developers.
But no one can say that Knobel's progression through the process has been an easy ride.
In summer 2004, Knobel first brought his proposal for a redeveloped Crossroads before the town planning and environmental commission. It wasn't the first major redevelopment to go before the seven-member volunteer commission. At the time, public officials were already touting "Vail's One Billion Dollar Renewal" with the new $250 million Arrabelle at Lionshead Village, a Four Seasons Hotel, a $70 million Vail Plaza Club and several other developments that would rev up the town's flagging sales-tax revenues. Still, the commission balked at the 113-foot height and sheer mass of Solaris. Members said they weren't sure if the "urban alpine" architecture meshed with the Bavarian style of most of Vail Village.
So Knobel made adjustments to his plans, removing a floor and pulling some of the retail shops away from the street. But the commission complained that the project was still too big, and that December, they voted to reject Knobel's plans. When Knobel said he would appeal the decision to the elected town council, Mayor Slifer blocked that bid, telling the developer to instead return to the commission and work things out.
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."
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.
But with Solaris now going through the SDD process, the council had to decide if a bowling alley was a public benefit. And if Knobel was allowed more square footage because he was including movie theaters, would future developers try to push the envelope?
"With this new guy, the city is so desperate for any kind of development that they're willing to give him anything," says Ford. "And that's the big departure from what we've done in the past. Now that has appropriately and not surprisingly caused the old guard to come unglued. They've fought for forty years to build this in their image. So to just arbitrarily say, ŒOkay, we just want to make this change here and we're going to a much more high-density format,' that's a big change based on the vote of one councilmember."
A referendum will at least make the decision on Vail's future direction clear and public, he says.
"The social glue has broken apart between generations because there is a change in political discourse," Lamont adds. "Very confrontational, very hostile, very personalized. So there is a split within the body politic that for the first time is represented in the four-three vote. Whenever you get such a convergence in generational attitudes, you get blood in the water, political blood in the water. And that attracts sharks. And that's what's going on with Crossroads."
"I like to think I'm not anti-anything. I'm just anti-stupid, is what I am," Kaye Ferry says, then hoists a margarita to her lips. La Cantina restaurant and bar is located deep inside the Vail Village parking structure, and conveniently below Ferry's one-room office at the Vail Chamber and Business Association. "And they're a little bit disappointed, frankly," she continues. "My phone has been ringing off the wall with people saying, 'Why are you doing this? This is the wrong thing.'"
Ferry has just returned to the building from her other job teaching ski school. Nineteen years ago, in the process of getting a divorce, she fled from Chicago to Vail to get out of town for a while. She never went back. Instead, she opened up the Daily Grind, a popular coffee shop/bar on Bridge Street, and ran it for fifteen years. Since she closed up shop three years ago, she's been writing a column for the Vail Daily as well as "running the chamber and being on the liquor board and a bunch of other shit."
Ferry is one of Knobel's most vocal supporters and has written a string of columns criticizing councilmembers for grandstanding and causing needless delays. "They seem to think I should be on board with this because it's all the same kind of mentality, but it's not," she says. "To me, all they're really doing is making things drag out and causing aggravation. This guy has a perfect legal right. He's been approved by everybody, and this is nonsense that we're getting in the way of this.
"Because what they're being driven by now is not numbers, it's not the economics of the situation, it's not what's good for the community," she continues. "It's their pure personal opinion that nothing should ever change in Vail. And that's not where I am. Rarely is change bad, in my opinion. Change is almost always uncomfortable, but rarely is it bad."
Ferry believes that Solaris's opponents are in the minority and that most business owners support the project. "Because everyone understands that Crossroads is one of the key cornerstones of what's going on in Vail Village right now," she says. "It has to be done. And the worst part is that it would be put off another year because of this election." Even if Knobel's project passes the referendum vote, as she believes it will.
"The fact of the matter is that Peter Knobel is an outsider. He came here from New York with a big checkbook, and they don't like it," she says. "I have said from day one, and I quite frankly don't give a shit if you print it, if Peter Knobel had hired Rod Slifer to be his sales agent, we would've had a hole in the ground already. There's just a cycle of these people, and they all take care of each other. And Knobel is not in that circle. They don't like that he can get something done without them."
Mark Gordon, who won the most votes in last November's town council election, never imagined that he'd be in the position of defending a developer. Before moving to Vail six years ago to take a job as foreman of the ski mountain's security department, he worked as a freelance producer of industrial commercials and videos, and prided himself on being a community activist. His progressive political leanings usually put him on the anti-development side of the fence, and he ran for council because he wants to return Vail to a place where middle-class working families can live.
The founders of the town built a truly amazing place, he says, but they overlooked a big piece of the puzzle. "And that was their own success," he explains. "Their own success has created a utopia, a place where people want to live because it's so spectacular." As at other resort communities, this caused a dramatic inflation in real-estate prices, pushing out families and working residents. With single-family homes in Vail now averaging $1.4 million, only 30 percent of Vail's workforce still lives in town.
"We don't want to become a cruise ship that's in the mountains," Gordon says. The founders "wanted us to be a real place, but they didn't have the foresight to do something with zoning to make sure that there's always the ability for everyone from a ski bum to a multi-millionaire to live here."
The problem isn't just the high cost of housing, but the lack of amenities for families and workers. Gordon would like to see more affordable retail space to encourage more diverse businesses, and he sees Knobel's project as a step in that direction. As a resident of Vail, Knobel recognizes the need to make the town more attractive to families -- and that's the reason some people oppose him, Gordon suggests.
Unlike companies behind many of the other new hotel and residential projects in town, Knobel "is not an outside developer," he points out. "He's someone who's moved his family into town, and they're scared of giving up some power. Maybe this is the last throes of an ex-ruling class throwing around the remaining muscle that they have. I don't know."
Ferry is more blunt. "No matter what anyone wants to think, this is not a sleepy little town anymore," she says. "This is a town that has a lot of money in it and a lot of power in it, a lot of people with egos and a lot of people with goals. And up until now, it's only been them. And he's come in and he's said, ŒI've got a legitimate property that I can do legitimate things with. And I've worked my way through the system, and you guys just can't fuck me anymore, and I'm going to win.' And they don't like that."
Vail is still little enough that it's no surprise when political arch-enemies meet on the street. And one sunny day in April, as Donovan and Cleveland stand near the covered bridge, Knobel suddenly appears.
"Hello, Diana. Hello, Dick," the developer says, shaking their hands like they're old friends.
But later, back in his office, Knobel calls the former councilmembers "shmucks" and accuses them of launching defamatory rumors about his character.
Such outbursts are legendary around town. On April 12, Knobel went to his attorney's office in Glenwood Springs. "He was demanding to see his lawyer and barged into his office and was yelling, using the F-word a lot and demanding attention right then and there, 'I want this and I want that,'" says one Eagle County resident who watched the whole thing. "It was very New York -- pushy, loud, demanding."
Others tell of a January 2 incident when Knobel confronted Alan Kosloff, president of the Vail Village Homeowners Association, at one of the group's meetings. Standing six inches from Kosloff's nose, Knobel let loose with a stream of profanities. "It was way out of line," Kosloff says simply.
But with an election looming, Knobel recognizes that you need to go along to get along. And on Thursday, April 20, he sits inside Vail Town Hall, waiting to see if the group collecting all the referendum signatures will deliver. Waiting with him are Cohn and two of the developer's attorneys. Vail Daily reporter Edward Stoner is here, too. Knobel jokes that one day he's going to buy the newspaper and make Stoner editor, but only after he starts up his own garbage service and puts Donovan, who owns Honeywagon Disposal, out of business. Everyone chuckles. If Knobel is nervous, he isn't showing it.
When Andy Wiessner comes marching through the door holding the stack of petitions, Knobel's attorneys stand and head into the office of the town clerk. The soft-spoken Wiessner was enlisted to run the petition drive because he's led other successful land-use battles throughout the region. His volunteers have collected 552 signatures -- well over the 388 required -- and Knobel's lawyers will go through every single one of them to make sure that each belongs to a valid resident of Vail. Knobel is pretty sure there will be enough legit signatures to get the referendum on the ballot, although he says he's heard about people being misled into signing.
Knobel has been through much worse in Manhattan, he explains: "The difference here is this. In New York City, you don't meet your opposition. Okay. You know, eleven million people. First of all, New York, it's all pork belly. There is no pork belly here. This isn't a town where you walk in and say, 'Who's head honcho? What do I got to do for him?' Okay? It's a different world."
Wiessner emerges from the clerk's office and walks over, saying that none of the residents he talked to during his door-to-door canvassing had anything bad to say about the developer. "A lot of people like the project and think it will be great for the town," he adds. "And just as many others think it's too tall. But I personally don't have any problems with you at all."
Knobel looks unsure of what to make of Wiessner's peace offering, but the two shake hands anyway. Wiessner acknowledges that the battle in the lead-up to the special election will be much more heated. But Knobel, with his attorneys cross-checking every signature on the petition, shrugs off the suggestion that Solaris faces a difficult road ahead.
On April 26, the Vail town clerk announced that there were enough signatures to put the proposal to a vote this summer. The date has yet to be set, but the campaigns have already started.
Directly across the highway from Vail Town Hall is the Middle Creek affordable-housing complex, which was built in 2004 to alleviate Vail's housing crunch for resort and town employees. When the project was first proposed, some longtime Vail residents railed against it, calling the project the "Cabrini Green of the mountains." But the pro-Crossroads Citizens for Change group sees the complex as a place to score possible votes, and has already held a free barbecue for residents.
"Yeah, it was great," reports one complex employee. "It got everyone together to see each other. And then there was a registration table with information about Crossroads. And they had beer, too."
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