As the Great Recession loosens its grip on Telluride, and developers are back developing, the town finds itself tied up in an awful knot.
Ambitious proposals to develop two of the last three major open parcels in town are now in the approvals process. And the way things are unfolding, there is a very good chance that neither of them will be nearly as good for the town as they could be. They might even be truly bad, with Telluride’s townscape, culture and economy adversely impacted by it for a generation.
The problem is a lethal combination of outdated zoning and Telluride’s “just say no” political culture. The zoning, which is at least twenty years old, was originally intended to protect both Telluride’s historic character and its commercial district, but because the world has changed in the last twenty years it is having precisely the opposite effect. The “just say no” culture is adamantly opposed to issuing waivers to the zoning, on the blind assumption, apparently, that the underlying zoning is worthy of their full-throated defense.
If this sounds to you like the classic definition of a “slow motion car wreck,” that’s about right, and it’s so disheartening in a town that purports to be enlightened that a far more vulgar term comes to mind.
There is a way out, but it will require Telluride’s leaders to come quickly to their senses and exercise political courage. If they don’t, the result is likely to be buildings and development that twenty years from now nobody will call “smart.”
Let’s start with the underlying zoning. There is one rule in particular in Telluride’s commercial districts that is of obvious concern, which is a restriction to 35 percent of gross floor area on the amount of a building that can be residential. Moreover, residential uses are not permitted on the ground floor or (in many cases) first floor of commercial buildings.
There are many other rules that govern commercial development, but an underlying theme behind many of them – requiring adequate parking and affordable housing, for example – is to protect Telluride’s historic character as a commercial center by providing for commercial viability (if not vitality).
Back when the 35 percent restriction on residential in commercial zones was enacted, nobody imagined that the value of upper story condos in central Telluride would reach the point where it makes perfect economic sense to essentially write off the value of the ground floor commercial and (sometimes) second floor office space in order to build a foundation for valuable luxury condominiums on top of them. And, laughing all the way to the bank, that is exactly what developers have done.
This is not good for the historic nature of Telluride but instead is a devastating hollowing out of the commercial district. In a sad irony, it is actually historic in the sense that we are creating modern day False Fronts, much like the businesses of the mining era tried to make one story structures look like they had a second floor. New buildings in Telluride similarly employ cheap tricks to create the illusion that the businesses inside are bigger and more prosperous than they really are.
I am confident that the property owners and developers in the Four Corners and on East Colorado Ave., where the Hotel Ajax has been proposed, are prepared to build by right and create fake commercial buildings as foundations for valuable condos in the sky, if the town really forces them to. (If not the current crop of owners, whoever they sell to will do it.) Other developers have already done it on smaller lots, proving that it works. If out of some misguided defense of its crappy and outdated zoning rules the town is unwilling to negotiate something smarter for all parties, what else can the property owners do?
The ideal solution would be to impose a moratorium on development applications and rewrite the underlying zoning. But it is too late for that on the Four Corners and Hotel Ajax properties, unless the developers are willing to withdraw their pending applications and wait for the town to get its act together. The town leaders should ask them and hope for the best.
But there is another perfectly good and workable solution. The Telluride Town Council can immediately grant General Waivers to problematic portions of the Land Use Code and thereby allow a real negotiation between the town and the developers to take place. The town council can and should trust the two lower boards who are responsible for reviewing and approving Planned Unit Developments to do that job. Council should grant waivers so the boards can operate with the flexibility that zoning would surely encompass if it were rewritten to correct its failings, so that these last precious large plots of open land in the center of Telluride can avoid mediocrity or worse. The HARC and P&Z processes are public, so nothing would happen behind closed doors.
Telluride has much more to fear and much more to lose from a refusal to negotiate with the developers in the controlled forums of HARC and P&Z than it does by observing the unfortunate Telluride political instinct of just saying no. Anyone who has attended a HARC or P&Z meeting knows that neither board can be snookered or bullied. If they are given the responsibility to protect our community values in negotiating with the developers of these two big projects, those boards would do us proud.
If we don’t move in this reasonable direction, and instead call the developers’ bluff once again, the vulgar term may not be strong enough to describe what happens next.
Yes, it will be a cluster____.