The words that have chilled many a developer’s heart in Telluride, “mass,” “scale” and “form,” apply.
So do such words as “intimidation” and “eyesore,” as the Clark’s Market application for expansion goes before the Telluride Historic and Architectural Review Commission. And regardless of HARC’s final vote Thursday night (after The Watch goes to press), it is safe to say the project will receive either a climactic review, or hit yet another bump in the road to the ultimate approval of a 20,000 square-foot grocery store, plus six new units of deed-restricted employee housing, six new free-market condominiums and 24 parking spaces below.
Is the “gateway” to Telluride – the Clark’s proposal also calls for a waiver of height restrictions from 35 feet to 40 feet – at risk, from an aesthetic and historical perspective?
The volume of paperwork and hired guns related to the Clark’s Market project has rolled like a growing snowball through the Town of Telluride’s approval process.
And that snowball just might cascade into an avalanche, with HARC’s request (among its nine suggested conditions) that the project “reduce the overall mass and scale to be more traditional in nature.”
Indeed, the entire application, entering its third year in the approvals process, is stalled in the process over issues of “mass and scale.”
In recent months, the volunteer HARC board, whose task it is to preserve Telluride’s historic and architectural heritage, has faced what some call “unprecedented” pressure from town staff and elected officials to confer its “certificate of appropriateness” to the Clark’s application, despite boardmember concerns about possible design flaws.
That pressure, what one HARC member called “bullying,” includes a controversial letter from Town Manager Frank Bell addressed to the members of the commission prior to its December meeting, stating: “I believe the applicant has made great progress in presenting an appropriate expansion plan that is compatible with our codes, your conditions, and public input. On those occasions where compliance has been problematic, appropriate waivers have been approved by the town council. It is my opinion that the Clark’s design team has done everything asked of them, and in some cases more.”
In addition to pointing out the community benefits of an expanded in-town grocery store, including enhanced sales-tax revenues, Bell’s letter outlined the consequences, should the Clark’s application fail to gain approval.
“The review cannot go on forever,” Bell writes. “We are at the point of final approval, and the applicant is at the point of having to decide whether to move forward with this project or cut his losses. It would be my hope that HARC would now approve this project, and do so unanimously.”
Bell said this week that his letter to HARC, printed on Town of Telluride letterhead, was an attempt to break up the HARC/Clark’s impasse, whether HARC approves the project or not.
“My intent was to reduce the controversy,” Bell said.
However, the letter was enough to draw protest from HARC board members.
“It’s huge pressure, and it’s the wrong kind of pressure,” said HARC Chair Chance Leoff, recused from participating in board deliberations on this application because of his home’s close proximity to the Clark’s Market site.
HARC Vice Chair Sonchia Jilek said the entire board found the letter troubling.
“I found it highly inappropriate,” she said. “It mentioned a lot of issues that are beyond the scope of HARC.”
For example, she said, regional economic considerations are above and beyond the mission of enforcing design review guidelines.
“That ill-advised letter … is something that has never happened before,” Leoff said.
Especially, he added, since the project is “not even close to being architecturally compliant.”
If the Clark’s expansion fails to get HARC’s support, there are several options, according to the town manager, including the option that “Clark’s could pick up their maps and go home.” Also, the denial could be appealed to the Town Council. Or the council could call up the application itself, and assume the HARC’s role in reviewing theapplication.
Bell said that, since the portion of the property intended for the market’s expansion is not deed-restricted, another possibility is that the entire parcel could be turned into condos, sold off, or made useful to whatever purpose the owner chooses.
Observing that Clark’s Market owner Tom Clark “owns the property outright,” Bell added, “it is not a site that by definition has to be a grocery store.”
Reflecting its belief that retaining Clark’s Market is important, in 2006 the Telluride Town Council granted a waiver of height restrictions, contingent on the property’s continued operation as a grocery store, from 35 feet to 40 feet.
“That’s an eyesore, and it’s an eyesore at the beginning of town,” Leoff said. “At the expense of the town’s fabric, he’s turning it into a real estate deal.”
Though he can’t vote, Leoff can voice his opinion that the Clark’s application far exceeds HARC guidelines.
“We are not talking about just crossing a little bit over the guidelines,” Leoff said.
“It has to be architecturally compliant,” he said. “If they don’t deny this, there’s no point in having HARC.”
In coming weeks, the Town Council faces the possibility of a project that failed to get HARC’s approval, and might have to choose between the divergent economic and aesthetic concerns.
Most expect the grocery cart to be rolled into the council’s aisle in just such a way.
In advance of Thursday evening’s critical HARC meeting, Clark, whose company operates grocery stores in Norwood, Aspen, Crested Butte, Basalt and Blanding, said he believes “we really worked hard on the building and have it look like it belonged to Telluride.” He went on to say that “community need,” as well as the challenges of putting together a pricey real estate deal that includes condominiums to help pay for the expansion of the market, outweighs the hang-ups with HARC.
“A lot of things are going on,” he said. “There are a lot of tradeoffs here.”
Clark agreed the “big hang-ups” with HARC are over “size and scale” issues. He confirmed that the price of the project is leaving his company overextended financially.
“We are using an awful lot of what we need to do business with in order to sustain this project,” he said. “The cost of the process, the holding cost of the land, the constant process of lawyers and different experts is costing $20,000 to $25,000 a month.
“We are just at our wits end.”