Longform

Vail at the Crossroads

Page 4 of 9

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.

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Jared Jacang Maher