By: Scott N. Miller, Vail Daily, September 15, 2014
VAIL — It’s been more than a decade since a big rental housing project was started in Vail. And, like anything in Vail, this project has carried plenty of controversy.
Town officials and developers Tuesday will hold a ground-breaking ceremony for the Lion’s Ridge apartments. That 113-unit project, on the eastern half of the 10-acre Timber Ridge property, will essentially replace the old units — which date to the early 1980s. But instead of units geared toward seasonal workers, these new apartments are aimed at year ‘round residents.
Every unit in the new apartments will have its own laundry equipment and furnace. The new apartments will also feature a small storage area for every bedroom.
At a Vail Town Council meeting in November of 2013, community development department director George Ruther noted that the plan for the new apartments is to present an in-Vail option to people who can live elsewhere.
That’s a scaled-down vision from several more ambitious plans floated over the years.
Those plans began percolating in the early years of the previous decade. Then, the original owner of Timber Ridge was ready to put the property on the open market, since federal tax incentives that kept the property in the “affordable” housing pool were set to expire.
Former Vail Mayor Rod Slifer recalled that town officials at the time believed the town wouldn’t be able to replace those 198 units of employee housing, and decided to buy the property.
“The council at the time felt it was important to keep it there for housing,” Slifer said.
Since then, there have been at least three proposals to replace the apartments with everything from rental housing to entry-level condos. All those proposals ran into various roadblocks, most having to do with the cost of building in Vail.
The most recent proposal — the one breaking ground Tuesday — is more modest. Developers Jen Wright and Gary Gorman brought the essentials of this plan to the Vail Town Council in 2013. Even after approval in November of 2013, more hurdles cropped up.
The project was supposed to break ground in May, with an eye toward the first tenants moving in in time for the 2015-16 ski season.
But ground breaking was delayed, due to what Wright said were difficulties with possible lenders. In late summer, Wright and Gorman asked to modify the original agreement, extending the terms of the ground lease for the apartments from 35 to 50 years, and adding an option for the developers to buy the property within the first decade.
That purchase price is about $5 million, roughly half of what the town paid for that part of the property.
Developers said both those changes were essential to get the project running. And plan supporters on the council have argued that contributing property, in whole or part, is standard practice in building workforce housing in mountain towns. However, the prospect of selling town land was a sticking point for some residents and a couple of council members.
Second-term council member Margaret Rogers first ran for office in 2007 pledging to get a Timber Ridge plan in place. She opposed the latest deal, both because of the potential cost to the town and the fact there aren’t more units being built.
Rogers and fellow council member Dale Bugby were in the minority on council, and cast the dissenting votes when the plan was put up for approval.
Wright praised Vail Mayor Andy Daly and Town Manager Stan Zemler for keeping the process going through the most recent hurdles.
“We couldn’t have gotten this done without the town,” Wright said.
Slifer believes the deal remains a good one for the town.
“It’s been a good investment,” he said. “It’s terribly important to preserve rental housing in town.”
Craig Cohn, a member of the Vail Local Housing Authority board, said he’s also eager to see new housing built.
“As a member of the (board), it doesn’t really matter what the deal was,” Cohn said. The important thing, he said, is building new housing for Vail’s front-line workers
“The town of Vail is under-housed at this price point,” Cohn said. “The sooner we get going the better.”
And, Wright said, “the town will end up with a nice project. It’s going to be a great place for people to live.”