Tom Clyde: Rattling the teacups in Old Town
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October 23, 2017
I have mostly quit reading the news about the Treasure project. It's been in the process for more than 30 years. There have been some dead periods in there, off and on, but the thing has basically been in front of the planning commission for a generation. The current planning commission chairman was a toddler when it was first proposed. The areas of concern haven't changed in all that time.
I was working at the City when it was first approved. The property involved was about 125 acres, and was zoned for moderate density. Not quite Old Town's 1,875 square foot lots (about the size of a Colony living room), but dense enough that, when multiplied by the large acreage, it was a boatload of density. It was there as a matter of right under the ordinance. So the discussion was how to make the best of a bad situation. Was it better to spread the density out all over the hillside, with steep roads, big cuts and retaining walls, or should the density be compressed into a smaller, taller footprint?
The City and the property owner made the decision 30 years ago that compact density was better than sprawling density. The landowners agreed to rezone the bulk of the property as open space, and designed the high-rise project. There have been some amendments to the approval along the way, and amendments in the code. But the long and short of it is that the project as originally approved met the requirements of the ordinance.
The current dispute is mostly over the proposal to include convention, commercial and other spaces in the project that were not specifically addressed in the previous approvals. There is a unit count, some square footage limitations on the hotel, and then a general allowance for "back of the house" functions. Hotels need lobbies, restaurants, hallways and elevator shafts. Less clear is whether they need convention space and commercial.
“That’s not excavation; it’s open pit mining.”
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Nobody liked the initial approval. It met the requirements of the code at the time, so there wasn't any sound basis to deny it. But in the background of all the discussions was the idea that the project couldn't be built. The logistics of building on that steep site, the volume of dirt to be moved, the reality that the underground parking for the very last unit to be built needs to be built first, before the first unit can be sold, and on and on. Technically, it was possible. But no lender would touch it because it was so frontloaded on costs. Any profit would come out of the final phase built, years later.
That logic worked, and we have enjoyed a generation's worth of nothing happening on the site. The partnership that owns it has gone through numerous changes. But despite several real estate booms, including the Olympics, it didn't get built. It's a high stakes gamble that it will remain financially impossible. Now that Park City has gone full Disney and the real estate market is completely Aspenized, maybe anything is possible here in fantasyland.
The article last week, however, pulled me back into the story. The report is that it will take 600 work days to do the excavation, and that the blasting would be small, scattered and essentially imperceptible to the neighbors. That's not excavation; it's open pit mining.
Six hundred work days could stretch to nearly three years, assuming they take weekends and holidays off, with some weather delays in there, too. That's a big hole. A lot of teacups will be rattled in the cupboards of Old Town. And that's just to get the hole in the ground. Then the fun starts with the concrete pouring and vertical construction. There's a long time between the ground breaking and the grand opening. Unlike the St. Regis and Montage projects, located in areas that were mostly uninhabited, this is at the congested base of the resort, and above a neighborhood where there are still a few primary residents.
Eventually something will be built there, and it will be huge. How huge is still unresolved, but huge-ish in a really huge way. The City could theoretically condemn the property and pay fair market value for it. But nobody can determine what the value is until there is a final determination of the development right. Litigation over that determination is inevitable and the parties are doing everything they can to create a detailed record on which to base a decision. It will be construed as carefully reasoned based on a multi-year analysis of the facts, or, as arbitrary and capricious ignoring the data. Everybody wants to make sure there is due process. But after 30 years, maybe this is undue process.
It's time to make a decision. The litigation could go on for another 30 years.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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