TELLURIDE – In order to support economic development, the Town of Telluride has sought a full service hotel for years. Encouraging short-term accommodations is among the Town Council’s 2014 goals and objectives.
But does the town want a hotel badly enough to grant the developer a General Waiver to the Telluride Land Use Code? Especially considering that some members of council – and the public – expressed a strong distaste for the very idea of General Waivers just last month when the Four Corners project sought one and was denied?
Possibly not, to judge from a decision by the Telluride Planning and Zoning Commission on Thursday, which recommended to council that it deny a General Waiver request from the proposed Hotel Ajax.
In effect, P&Z called developer Randy Edwards’s bluff. And the question now is whether it was a bluff.
P&Z’s decision came after a long work session with the Edwards and his architect, Dylan Henderson, in a joint meeting with the Telluride Historic and Architectural Review Commission. Members of HARC and P&Z, and some members of the public, lavished the project with praise, saying they loved the hotel accommodations it would bring to the east end of the town’s commercial district and also liked the general direction the proposed design was taking.
But nearby residents told the two boards that the developer was trying to put too much on a lot with inherent problems, notably that the lot was too small to accommodate the minimum of 50 hotel rooms that the developer said were a bottom-line requirement for a hotel that could attract a national brand, plus the necessary amenities for a luxury hotel and 16 condos on the upper story. In addition, because the parcel is on the San Miguel River where the water table is high, putting parking underground would be very expensive and present its own difficulties in winning approval.
And putting parking on the ground level is precisely the rub.
To accommodate the ground level parking and all the other necessary elements, Edwards told the two boards that he was requesting a General Waiver from the town’s restriction in the zone district permitting a 2:1 Floor Area Ratio. The project was seeking permission to apply for a 2.4:1 FAR, which would yield an additional 13,600 square feet.
“We are not seeking a height variance,” Edwards said. “The FAR variance is the most subtle waiver.”
His point was that precisely the same building could be built at a 2:1 FAR if the parking was underground and it incorporated an interior courtyard.
Noting that there is a general political opposition in town to the provision of the town’s Land Use Code that allows a project to seek a General Waiver from the Telluride Town Council, P&Z recommended that council deny the request and instead encourage Edwards to make the project work at a 2:1 FAR.
The question now is whether Edwards can reduce the building’s mass and still meet all of the program’s requirements.
Having seen the General Waiver request by the Four Corners project go down in flames, Edwards was not surprised by P&Z’s action, and said after the meeting that he would try to make the project work without the necessity for a General Waiver. But Henderson observed that the difficulty of trading public benefits for variances is precisely what leads developers to retreat from ambitious plans and instead build projects that offer minimal public benefit “by right” instead.
Earlier, Edwards told the two town boards that both Marriot and Starwood are interested in the Hotel Ajax. That was important, he suggested, because only a major hotel brand, can drive enough occupancy through its global reservations system to make the hotel profitable. The minimum of 50 rooms was a bottom-line requirement.
After P&Z member Scott Andrews cautioned Edwards and Henderson that the sentiment in town is opposed to General Waivers, Edwards replied, “That’s my burden. This is just such a great public benefit that hopefully we can get beyond that.”
The strongest support for the project was voiced by business owners on the east end of main street, who argued that the hotel would provide much needed vitality by extending the commercial district.
Leading the opposition was former Telluride Mayor Amy Levek, who was the Telluride Town Planner prior to being mayor and who said that the General Waiver provision in the town’s LUC gives the message to developers that “there are no rules.”
“I’m not saying I’m for or against bedbase on that parcel,” Levek said. “But they are seeking a General Waiver because they are trying to put too much on the lot.”
Levek, who lives across the street from the lot, also submitted a letter to the two boards that was signed by other nearby residents.
The concern, Levek told council, was too much impact in the form of traffic and noise, notably noise from a proposed rooftop bar.
Neighbor Alexandra duJardin cautioned the two boards that permitting variances was a slippery slope and reminded them that their responsibility is to protect residents’ quality of life. Neighbor Don Lachowski said that smaller hotels, like the Ice House and Camels Garden, seem to succeed in Telluride and pointed to the irony that at the same time the former 17-room Aspen Street Inn is being demolished and replaced with six condominiums, a loss of bedbase, a developer was now seeking a variance for bedbase in a less suitable location.
This reporter, who is also publisher of The Watch and an East Telluride resident, told the two boards that at the risk of offending his neighbors he strongly supports the project.
He told the two boards that over the years other hotel proposals had been defeated in their efforts to win variances from the town and the result is that parcels optimally suited for hotel development, notably the East and West Depot parcels, had been developed instead at lower densities that did not serve the town well because they do not accommodate visitors.
“I would like to speak in favor of higher density,” Cagin said. “We need the body heat.”
In making the motion to recommend denial of the General Waiver request to council, longtime P&Z member Kathy Green said she had seen the town grant substantial variances in exchange for bedbase only to see those projects later fail and be converted into condominiums.
“If this project ultimately goes forward, I want to see ironclad assurances that it will always remain a hotel,” Green said.
Despite forcing the project back to the drawing board for a 13,600 s.f. haircut, members of both HARC and P&Z offered many comments in support of the project, praising not only the bedbase but the avoidance of the water table, the treatment of required setbacks from the River Trail, the proposed massing and scale, and setbacks on the rear alley.
“You have an approvable project,” HARC Chair Chance Leoff told Edwards.
Editors Note: Watch editor Gus Jarvis strongly objects to Watch publisher Cagin participating in meetings he is covering as a reporter.