If Approved and Built, Downtown Would Extend South of Main Street
TELLURIDE – One of the largest and most potentially transformative developments ever proposed in the Town of Telluride was presented to the Telluride Town Council Tuesday, eliciting expressions of both support and caution from members of council and the public who attended.
The proposal from longtime Telluride residents John Lifton and Pamela Zoline (working in partnership with real-estate investors) envisions a large scale mixed-use development centered at the intersection of Pacific and Fir streets, a crossroads commonly known as the Four Corners.
If it wins development approval from Telluride, a town that has recently viewed large-scale projects with skepticism and has rejected many more proposals that it has approved, the area from the center of Telluride south of Colorado Ave. on Fir St. to the gondola station would be transformed with buildings that could house accommodations, retail shops and condominiums, along with a plethora of public amenities, including a multi-purpose “campus” to accommodate the town’s arts, educational and science organizations.
The Lifton-Zoline proposal would transform what is now a lightly used area of vacant lots, small structures and a ruined landmark building that now consists only of partial exterior stone walls, the former Telluride Transfer Warehouse, into a new “center of town,” Lifton told council.
As is a basic tenet of any large Planned Unit Development, or PUD, the developer would provide public amenities in exchange for zoning variances that Lifton and Zoline said would be necessary to make the overall project viable.
“One of the great values of our town is the human scale,” Zoline told council, adding that Telluride is “the hometown everyone wishes they came from.”
It is thanks to the vision of Telluride Ski Area founder Joe Zoline, Pamela Zoline’s father, that the south-side infrastructure making that “human scale” still attainable today has been preserved.
The Lifton-Zoline proposal – dubbed The Telluride Transfer Co., in a nod to the 19th century warehouse-and-transit company Joe Zoline was obliged to purchase to obtain the necessary Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, to ferry skiers from Telluride the the ski mountain – is possible today because of Joe Zoline’s insistence on a Telluride-to-Mountain Village gondola, and on working to “activate and humanize the Telluride core,” Lifton told council.
The principal variances the development would seek are to exceed as-right limits on floor area and building height of some structures, and the waiving of affordable housing and parking requirements for one portion of the proposed development. In exchange, in addition to the campus aimed at supporting Telluride’s economy and culture, public benefits would include public parking and restrooms.
The project preserves single-story buildings, including The Strong House and Baked in Telluride; as a “trade-off,” the developers said, for making some buildings taller than is normally allowed.
After the presentation, followed by comments from council and members of the public who attended, council directed the town’s Planning and Zoning and Historic Architectural Review Commissions to begin a review of the application, the first two of five steps in the town’s PUD approval process. Those five steps are preliminary review by the two boards, final review and recommendations by those two boards to the Telluride Town Council, and, finally, approval by council.
Because the Four Corners is located only one block south of Colorado Avenue (Telluride’s commercial core) and has been relatively undeveloped for decades, the area has long been envisioned as a likely location for commercial development.
It is, in fact, zoned commercial.
In 2006, the town’s revised Master Plan identified Four Corners as a “subarea…that require[s] careful attention and merit[s] additional planning at a detailed scale,” a prescription with which, Lifton said, the proposal complies.
He also pointed out that planning the Four Corners has been listed on the Telluride Town Council’s Goals and Objectives since 2011; that same year, a task force was formed consisting of town representatives and landowners, including members of the Lifton-Zoline family, to explore potential public/private development projects. The town’s stake includes the large vacant lot at the northeast corner of the Four Corners, a parcel whose future has been much debated over the years, but has most often been considered for a public parking structure.
Iconic Transfer Warehouse
The Telluride Transfer Co. proposal would restore the iconic Transfer Warehouse, whose remnant stone walls only suggest its former stature as a transit center, on the southwest corner of the Four Corners, and the Strong House, which is home to Telluride Arts, to the south of the warehouse.
Because both buildings are historically significant and resemble structures that dotted the Telluride landscape during its mining days, the application states that the existing structures will remain intact and will be incorporated into future designs.
Those designs would incorporate residences, shops, restaurants, and underground parking. The single-story Strong House would act as the front desk, lobby and gathering area for the envisioned residential development, and would be preserved in its entirety, even though a new structure would be built around it.
But to build the structures as they’re proposed would require height variances from the Town of Telluride. The project requests a possible 14-foot extension of the 35-foot maximum permitted by right in the commercial district (and even more than the permissible 40 feet permitted by variance) for buildings on the epicentric Four Corners, at Fir St. and Pacific Ave. Using historical data, Lifton argued that many of the building heights in Telluride’s mining days exceeded the town’s current restrictions on height in the Four Corners area, citing the Red Men’s Opera House, which photogrammetric analysis shows stood at 50 feet in the early 1900s before it burned down.
Councilor Bob Saunders expressed concern that “pedestrians could be overwhelmed” by the presence of such tall structures in the townscape.
“There are several things that bother me [about this proposal],” Saunders said. “We turned down a project that was 49 feet in height. …Tourism and scenery weren’t part of what made up our economy back then. The fact that we’ve kept the town at a lower height is important.
“I love the idea of [this proposal], I think it’s a great thing for the town, but it’s got to have limits in order not to overshadow and create a precedent for other proposals.
“If you look back and look at photographs in the historic period,” Lifton responded, “what you’ll see is that there was a great variety of size everywhere,” with “big and small buildings cheek-by-jowl all over town.
“One of the effects of regulation is that we get a cookie cutter effect of [the same] building sizes everywhere” in present-day Telluride, he continued. “That is not reflective of the historic period.”
Because the slope of the town’s terrain drops south of Main Street, Telluride’s Land Use Code already allows extra height in that zone, as the extra height doesn’t impact the overall look of the town.
“We are fighting for things here that we think are historically important. Height variance is a trade-off,” Lifton added, generating applause from some members of the general public who attended the meeting.
“We don’t have to have a view of Ajax from every point in town,” observed Councilor Kristen Permakoff.
Offering a substantial public benefit in exchange for the requested variances, the Lifton-Zoline proposal would produce the entire second floor of the Transfer Warehouse as “shell-space” for a campus facility of approximately 7,000 square feet, which could be doubled if a third story to the structure is approved at a later date.
The application states that the campus would be deed-restricted for public uses, “sold/conveyed/delivered in shell condition to a nonprofit entity such as the Telluride Institute or similar body to own and operate.”
Lifton and Zoline co-founded the Telluride Institute, now in its 30th year, which has functioned as a de facto incubator for a range of educational, social and cultural programs and amenities in the region today (the Institute is not connected to the development of the campus component of the Telluride Transfer Co. project).
Lifton and Zoline envision the campus as the year-round linchpin of Telluride’s “third economy,” a year-round economy they described as one of three legs on the “three-legged stool” that sums up the tricky Telluride economy (the other two are the region’s four-month-long high-season periods of winter and summer tourism).
This third economy, built on arts, sciences, education and health, would be supported by the campus whose administrators would “interface,” the application states, “with potential users and administer the space among the users, being responsible for finishing, repairing and maintaining the space to serve its intended uses.”
The multi-purpose campus would attract crowds different from those that typically visit Telluride for its winter and summer sports and festivals, Lifton said, helping to stabilize the town’s fluctuating economy.
Councilor Todd Brown voiced support for the campus. “There’s nothing else that I’m aware of that’s even being considered at this point that has this kind of opportunity for the arts and cultural aspects of this town,” Brown said. “[The campus] provides huge benefits for us as a community and an economic draw for further growth.”
The Other Corners
East of the Transfer Warehouse, across Fir St., the proposal envisions a mixed-use residential and commercial building, with underground parking. On the northwest corner, the application proposes to keep Baked in Telluride in place (it replicates the historic structure that burned in a spectacular fire in 2010), but the structure housing the Village Market would be removed and replaced with mixed-use buildings containing residential and commercial tenants and underground parking, as well as public restrooms.
Councilor Thom Carnevale questioned the proposal’s removal of Village Market, saying, “I’m concerned about the loss of a grocery store in that area.
“At the moment, it serves a pretty big purpose in terms of festivals,” he said of the Village Market. “We’d be in a position where [the other grocery store] may or may not expand; that would be diminishing competition. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
The last parcel the application incorporates is the northeast corner, which is town-owned land, and would be developed into a parking structure.
Brown and Mayor Stu Fraser supported the idea.
“We’ve been looking for years as a town to increase parking here,” Brown said, “That is substantial public benefit.”
“I want to see the town’s lot developed to hold hundreds of cars,” said Fraser.
Dave Valentine, a member of the Historic and Architectural Review Commission, who otherwise expressed misgivings about elements of the proposal, said he supports the development of a parking garage on the town-owned parcel.
“We need downtown parking. Some people can park [their cars] for a week,” he said, “Let’s get them parked so they can spend their money here.”
Thanking the couple for a presentation that’s “just memorable, and brought tears to my eyes,” Councilor Ann Brady said, “It’s marvelous that your family has held this and had this dream for so long.”
Of hurdles the proposal will face, including potentially arduous review by the town’s Historic and Architectural Review and Planning and Zoning commissions and future council meetings, she said: “Hopefully the process is as smooth as your presentation.”
With additional reporting by Marta Tarbell.