National Perspectives

A Ski Town’s Battle Over Growth

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

SOCIAL CENTER Some residents think the Solaris development (model above) will rejuvenate Vail, Colo.

By WENDY KNIGHT

Published: February 18, 2007
Vail, Colo.
A New View in Vail
 
Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

The project will include various businesses and 75 condos, each with luxury amenities.

ON a sunny midweek morning in January, a dozen people breezed into the Solaris sales office here to inquire about the $250 million mixed-use development that will break ground in May.

They admired the architectural models and listened to a saleswoman describe the property: 75 mountain-view condominiums, a two-story lobby, a Japanese restaurant, shops, three cinemas, a bowling alley and a public plaza with an ice skating rink in winter and a water fountain in summer.

What the prospective buyers admiring the models could not see was the protracted fight behind the project (once known as the Crossroads), a battle that originated from an unlikely source — a vocal contingent of town founders. They included Dr. Tom Steinberg, Vail’s first family practitioner; Andy Weissner, an advocate of preserving open space; and Joe Staufer, a former hotel owner.

The part of the project that set off the controversy is an Alpine lodge building that will be constructed of steel, wood and stone. Though its style is more indigenous to the area than the faux-Bavarian style of Vail, the proposed building was criticized as not conforming to the prevailing architecture.

“It doesn’t fit,” said Dr. Steinberg, 82.

At 113 feet, he and others argued, it would be the tallest building in Vail and block northern mountain views. It is not just the structure, though, that has drawn criticism. The site’s developer, Peter Knobel, has come under fire, too.

“It’s ego that motivated him,” Dr. Steinberg said. “He doesn’t have a small-town attitude toward working with your neighbors. He thinks, ‘If I can do it, then I’m going to do it.’ ”

A former real estate developer and telecommunications executive from Long Island, Mr. Knobel, 49, who has had a second home in Vail since 1997, moved here full time with his wife and two children five days after 9/11.

Dressed in an orange down jacket, jeans and trail running shoes, he sat in the sales office and talked about his impetus for the project. “Vail has gotten to be a less desirable place to dine, shop and conduct business,” Mr. Knobel said, arguing that in nearby towns like Edwards and Avon, commercial rents were reasonable, parking was plentiful and buildings newer. He also said he had been inspired by his children to “make this a better place for families.”

For its proponents, the project brings a much-needed vitality to the Vail village with amenities specifically for residents, like the cinemas and the ice skating rink.

“Peter looked at everything this community needed, and he put it in that building,” said Kaye Ferry, 62, executive director of the Vail Chamber and Business Association.

With their wallets, buyers have also signaled their approval. Within six weeks of going on the market, 60 percent of the condos had sold. Ranging from 1,100 to 6,500 square feet and priced from $2.2 million to $18.6 million, the condos have granite counters, custom-made cherry cabinets, marble bathrooms and double-thick-pane windows to deflect sound from the busy road at the building’s north side.

In voicing opposition to the project, Dr. Steinberg, who has served on the Vail council intermittently since 1967, had “hoped the town council would take a step back and look at the potential damage to the village” if it approved the Solaris project. Dr. Steinberg, who practiced in the valley for 47 years before retiring in 2002, admits to feeling paternalistic toward the town and decries what he sees as the urbanization in the village.

“His heart is in the right place,” said Craig Cohn, 34, director of sales and marketing for Solaris. “But Vail is changing.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, according to Ms. Ferry, who first came to Vail as a seasonal renter in 1987 and moved here full time in 1991, “Vail was a quaint European walking town with Tyrolean buildings. But our guests have changed. A stroll in the woods isn’t what they plan. They want to be entertained.”

In the summer of 2005, Vail’s seven-member planning commission unanimously approved the Solaris project, but in work sessions with the council it was apparent to Mr. Knobel that he didn’t have the necessary votes on the council to win approval. So he withdrew the application and continued to work with architects to design the building.

 

Simultaneously, Mr. Knobel and his staff focused on voter registration, “raising awareness among young voters that they could take part in the political system,” he said. Mr. Cohn organized Vail Citizens for Change, a registered issue committee.
Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

But a vocal contingent of town founders, including Dr. Tom Steinberg, say the project does not conform with the prevailing architecture.

The Solaris project dominated the discussions at the three forums held in October 2005 for candidates vying for the four open seats on the council.

Perhaps the most telling endorsement came from Jon Paul Ferzacca, a 14-year-old ski racer and the son of local restaurateurs. According to his mother, Lourdes, he walked up to the podium, hiked up his baggy jeans and declared: “I love Vail, but this town’s boring. There’s nothing here for anyone to do.”

Mrs. Ferzacca, who with her husband, Paul, owns a French restaurant in the village and is a board member of the Vail Chamber and Business Association, strongly supported the redevelopment.

“Peter’s bringing in a lot of things the town doesn’t have,” Mrs. Ferzacca said. She mentioned that the plaza is intended to be used for concerts.

The November election proved pivotal for the Solaris project. Two of the council members who did not support the project lost their re-election bids, tipping the balance in Mr. Knobel’s favor. Within weeks of the election, Solaris resubmitted its application, winning approval 4 to 3.

The election signified a “power struggle in town between those who founded it and had been around forever and the new, younger families I represent,” said Mark Gordon, 43, a new council member who also works as the foreman for the security department at Vail Mountain.

But the fight was not over. The opposition gathered the required signatures to put the issue on a special ballot. Letters to the editor, defending and assailing the project, ran in The Vail Daily.

While pursuing a grass-roots campaign to mobilize voters is common in Washington, D.C., it was new to Vail.

“Peter was brilliant,” Ms. Ferry said. “He was an outsider trying to do something that hadn’t been done in Vail. He didn’t play the game by anybody’s rules. I applaud him for not being backed into a corner.”

Dr. Steinberg sounded less impressed. “Mr. Knobel put on heavy metal and rock concerts and gave them free beer,” he scoffed about the voter registration drives.

Vail residents voted resoundingly to approve the project. Of the 1,577 who turned out for the special election last July, 1,100 voted in favor. And the number of registered voters had increased to 4,045 by last July from 3,800 in November 2005.

“Peter is creating an environment that caters to an entire family,” said Kelley Brupbacher, 29, a nine-year Vail resident who voted for the project.

In recent years Ms. Brupbacher has worked jobs as a camp counselor and after-school teacher that put her in contact with local youths and visiting families who often vented their frustration with the lack of recreational options.

“Once the mountain closed,” she said, “there isn’t a lot for teenagers to do.”

Yet support for the project is not limited to the under-40 crowd. “It’s going to be a good social thing for Vail,” said John Faas, who has lived here for 35 years.

Dr. Steinberg is less optimistic.

“Too many young people think bigger is better,” he said. “They don’t have a historical perspective or take the long view. The Indians took seven generations. I’d settle for one.”