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A conversation with James DeFrancia
Spurned Aspen developer reflects on Basalt’s CDC parcel
Park Map
Lowe Enterprises proposal for the controversial CDC parcel in Basalt was centered around a 55,000-square-foot condominium hotel.

Basalt residents can be forgiven for thinking the contentious Community Development Corp. (CDC)/River Park issue will continue to occupy a prominent place on the town council’s agenda pretty much till the end of time.

In truth, there has been movement of late.

Though a deal has yet to be struck and a million things can still happen to torpedo what many people consider headway, at least there has been positive dialogue of late. 

The most current version of a development proposal on the controversial 2.3-acre CDC parcel on Two Rivers Road next to the Rocky Mountain Institute has been a regular item on the town council’s meeting agenda for the past several months.

The proposal, by a group called Basalt River Park LLC, has been well enough received by the council that they have referred it to the town’s financial consultant for fiscal vetting.

The project, presented by Tim Belinski, who has spent the past two-decades-plus involved in the Willits development, is residence heavy, with a mix of dwellings that would open up the development to a wide array of socio-economic demographics. 

The most current version has 23 dwellings, covering the size gamut from 1,100-square-foot free-market cabins to a series of micro-apartments. Also included in Belinski’s proposal is substantial space dedicated to commercial, community and nonprofit uses.  

According to Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney, the town’s financial consultant, Ehlers and Associates, is still waiting on some numbers from Belinski. Mahoney said “We are hoping to be able to review them at the first [town council] meeting in February.”

Basalt River Park earned a verbal accolade in December from Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, who said of Belinski’s proposal during a town council meeting, “It looks pretty darned good. I don’t know how we could screw it up.”

Twenty miles up Highway 82 sits a man who, though too polite to articulate it thusly, feels that Basalt may be getting ready to do just that.

James DeFrancia is a principal with Lowe Enterprises, a development group with deep valley roots that presented its own version of a development plan for the CDC parcel to Basalt several years ago. That proposal encompassed a total of 70,000 square feet centered around a 55,000-square-foot condominium hotel. Also included in Lowe’s proposal was space for the Art Base, a public meeting space, room for a restaurant and outdoor retail space.

The proposal basically did not make it to second base in the planning process before DeFrancia pulled the plug because of what he perceived was a lack of interest on the part of the town council.

Since DeFrancia first unveiled his plan, Basalt has had two new town council members, two town managers and two interim town managers. The Lowe proposal was well underway when current Town Manager Ryan Mahoney took up his position in June 2017.

DeFrancia remains convinced that a hotel-centered project would be more beneficial to Basalt than a residence-based development.

Given that it is almost exactly two years since DeFrancia pulled his proposal, we thought it would be timely to ask DeFrancia to revisit his experience with Basalt and the CDC parcel. 

RFWJ: What was the basic time frame we’re talking about here? When did you first pitch the plan to Basalt and when did you finally pack up your tent and say the heck with it?

JD: We engaged in November 2014 and gave up out of frustration in late 2017.

RFWJ: What was the original impetus/motivation for Lowe Enterprises to throw its hat into the CDC ring?

 JD: The CDC parcel is an extraordinary piece of land and it called for quality development, which we thought that we could bring about.

RFWJ: How far along in the process did you get?

 JD: We did thorough studies of the site, assessed market potential and costs and formulated a land plan and a proposed project. We followed almost exactly one of the development options suggested by the Downtown Area Advisory Committee (DAAC) — it was their Option 2B. We followed an informal process in order to assess reception of the concept before investing in a formal application. We DID do a very complete site plan for presentation to the public and town officials.

RFWJ: How do you remember the Basalt Town Council reacting to your proposal?

JD: We first presented it to DAAC and it was endorsed by a vote of 10-1. Then P&Z, at a work session, endorsed the concept unanimously. Then the council essentially rejected it.

RFWJ: Why do you think you got that reaction?

JD: I have no idea! Given that the DAAC was established by the council, it was very confusing to see the DAAC recommendations rejected, as well as the views of P&Z.

RFWJ: After more than two years, what is your retrospective response to that reaction?

JD: It remains baffling. There seems to have been some other agenda — focus on making the property all additional park without regard to the public benefit economics. In short, more park for park’s sake and ignore the cost. 

RFWJ: What prompted Lowe Enterprises to go with a hotel-centered plan rather than a housing-centered plan?

JD: It was the view of the DAAC, and many community leaders, that the Old Town area was suffering from a lack of quality lodging and “feet on the street.” A hotel was widely suggested in the community.

RFWJ: How much did Lowe Enterprises spend preparing its plan for the CDC parcel?

JD: On the order of $50,000-plus.

RFWJ: Do you think a hotel-centered plan is still the best way for Basalt to proceed with the CDC parcel?

JD: I truly do. There is no “there, there” as the saying goes. The Old Town has lost vitality.

RFWJ: What are your thoughts about the current plan being entertained by the Basalt Town Council, as presented by Tim Belinski?

JD: It is totally different. Apples and oranges. We offered a boutique hotel, residential condos with some affordable units, one-third of the parcel as open space to be added to the existing park, an amphitheater in that space for public events, parking and view corridors from the street to the river that were as wide as the building-to-building distance along Midland Avenue. AND we were going to reimburse the town about $2.5 million for its prior work on the site. I fail to see that what is now proposed is better for the community.

RFWJ: What are your thoughts about the way the Basalt Town Council is reacting to Mr. Belinski’s proposal compared to yours?

JD: The council is elected to address such matters and they will do what they do, as is their right.

RFWJ: In what ways do you think your proposal is superior to Mr. Belinski’s plan?

JD: Again, apples to oranges. Our plan focused on economic vitality, a gathering place, people to add vitality to the Old Town area and the ability of the town to recover a good deal of money. The current plan does not seem to address all those points. Not a bad plan, just a different one with different outcomes for the public benefit. Those benefits seem less [than with our plan].

RFWJ: Do you feel you were treated fairly or respectfully by the Basalt Town Council during this process?

JD: Yes, to the extent that we had good dialogue with staff. In the latter stages, the council seemed disinterested, though, and bent on taking a different direction.

RFWJ: Do you harbor ill will toward the Basalt Town Council regarding the way things worked out?

JD: Not at all. I question their decisions as to what might be best for the town, but they are elected and so what they choose is what they have the right to choose and the voters can decide if they disagree.

RFWJ: If Mr. Belinski’s deal falls through, could you envision going back in front of the Basalt Town Council with another proposal for the CDC parcel?

JD: I would be happy to return with our original concept.

RFWJ: What projects has Lowe been involved in since you pulled the plug on your CDC proposal?

JD: Primarily the Gorsuch Haus and the Lift One Corridor project in Aspen, which was just voted on by city council and is now referred to the public for a confirming referendum. It has a number of remarkable public benefits.

RFWJ: Anything else you would be inclined to add?

JD: The CDC parcel is unique and offers a real opportunity for [Basalt] to add needed vitality and economic benefit. I hope the community will see that prospect and endorse a creative use of broad impact and not just another subdivision. The council needs to look into the future and at what the community needs to sustain itself as a unique venue and not just a suburb of Aspen with its focus on Willits.