Winter Park is looking to develop two town-owned properties at its north gateway and invited select business stakeholders to give targeted feedback.
The two vacant parcels, totaling 14 acres, are referred to as the Sitzmark properties. Located on the east side of Highway 40, the lots are situated on either side of Hernandos Pizza and the Strip & Tail, near Fraser’s Grand Park development.
The town acquired the north Sitzmark parcel three years ago to complete the Fraser River trail linking the Rendezvous development to the downtown area, then acquired the south parcel this summer.
A developer had planned to construct a five-story building on the property called James Peak Lodge, the skeleton of which sat on the property several years after plans turned south and the land went into receivership. A British company then owned the property until the town of Winter Park purchased it.
“The council determined it was time to take a little risk in acquiring the property … getting it out of stagnant hands,” Winter Park Town Manager Drew Nelson said.
A favorable real estate market allowed the council to obtain the lots with significantly less risk, Nelson said, and the town began looking at business opportunities.
Town officials sent out a request for proposals in mid-July for development ideas at the Sitzmark sites, selecting a consultant with experience in the cities of Boulder, Broomfield, Longmont and other Colorado cities.
According to Nelson, it has been about 15 years since downtown Winter Park has seen a successful commercial development — the center containing the Library brewery as the most recent.
“We are trying to do something for the betterment of the community that provides a sustainable revenue stream,” Nelson said.
Town officials declined to comment on ideas they have for the Sitzmark properties, reserving information for an unveiling of alternatives at a scheduled Public Open House set for Oct. 25. But according to individuals who were present at invite-only meetings in early October, at least two ideas were floated for the Sitzmark development: a grocery store or an intense urban mixed-use development.
“Belmar village came up quite a bit, a development in Denver where it’s a neighborhood development, neighborhood feel with commercial stores and condos,” said Bob Wolf, a Winter Park resident who owns commercial property downtown and showed up to the October meetings uninvited, but was allowed to stay and listen to discussions.
A grocery store may conform to Winter Park’s master plan, a town document developed after a long process of soliciting public feedback, but one that hasn’t been updated since 2005.
But some community members like Wolf worry a mixed-use development goes against the town’s overall master-plan strategy.
“I support the grocery store there 100 percent, but I don’t support mixed used development,” Wolf said. “Simply because it’s pulling business away from the downtown business core that people spent a lot of time and effort trying to make a viable place.”
The master plan recommends the south portion of town be a “pedestrian-oriented” core, and north end of town be “auto-oriented, more suburban, strip commercial (in) character.” These concepts were first adopted in 1993 and continued in the 2005 plan.
Evidence of the south zone’s pedestrian planning strategy is reflected in buildings fronting the highway, with a strong sidewalk presence facilitating walkability, and a garage and parking lots situated behind buildings and stores. The north end of town has large parking lots along the main highway, with businesses set farther back, like the King’s Crossing strip mall containing Carver’s and Grand Sports.
The master plan also says any expansion of the downtown core should move east and west, calling it a “key concept of the town plan.” Pedestrian-oriented and mixed-use expansion should be directed to the south end of town, the plan states, while the north remains auto-oriented.
According to Nelson, the master plan is a guidance tool, and it doesn’t preclude the town council from making development decisions.
“This is a good opportunity for us to look at enhancing downtown Winter Park,” Nelson said.
But if the town plans on changing its development strategy, some business stakeholders said the master plan should be updated, going through the same public feedback process.
Beyond master plan recommendations, some meeting attendees said they were concerned about Winter Park’s ability to sustain a new commercial development.
“I would love to see more business and more commerce in our town,” said Winter Park business owner Lance Gutersohn, owner of Re/MAX Peak to Peak. “(But) it seems to me we have a hard enough time keeping our current stores full.”
Gutersohn, who is the chair of the Grand County Committee for Economic Development, said more research is needed on the county’s demographics to assess whether the town can support commercial expansion.
“That’s why I think development of this property might be a little premature,” he said.
Instead, Gutersohn would like to see new amenities the town doesn’t already have, like a transportation hub, which he called a “win-win” for the town, businesses and residents.
Robin Wirsing of Allegiant Management, another business stakeholder in Winter Park, said the town should explore more options rather than shift around commercial areas.
“The existing businesses in town are struggling a fair amount as it is,” she said.
Other stakeholders worry about a new commercial core’s impact to existing businesses at the south end of town.
“Impacts on the existing portion of the downtown (should be) examined and analyzed,” said Ron Jones, managing partner of Cooper Creek Square, “and we should make sure we’re not hurting people who have invested in the community for many, many years.”
Some town officials, however, believe certain business owners and stakeholders may object to more development because they’re more concerned about their own bottom line.
“I think there are some people who have to let go of what’s best for their pocket, and do what’s best for the town,” said Winter Park Town Council Member Chris Seeman.
Perceived slips in public process
Besides public meetings surrounding the request for proposals and discussions held on those proposals, the Winter Park town council held three meetings on Oct. 3, regarding the Sitzmark development. Two were deemed private and one was a workshop. Specific stakeholders from the community, such as those quoted in this story, were invited to provide input at the meetings as to what kind of development they thought would best suit the town at those sites.
But the meetings, because of their private nature, made some people suspicious of town motives.
Wolf was not invited to the meetings, but showed up to 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. sessions. After some discussion, town council members and the town manager allowed him to stay at the morning meeting, but Wolf said he was not allowed to comment.
“In our meeting it was more brainstorming and what folks felt should be located in those particular spaces,” said Gutersohn, an invited meeting attendee that day.
The meetings were held with the town’s contracted design consultants, California-based Van Meter Williams Pollack LLC.
The Sky-Hi News confirmed at least three council members were in and out of the private meetings, held at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. But only two council members were present at a time, less than a quorum, and they took no official action.
“Courts throughout the country have concluded that this type of intentional effort by a public body to evade the quorum requirement of a sunshine statue constitutes a violation, “ said Steve Zansberg, an attorney with the Colorado Press Association.
According to town manager Drew Nelson, if more than two members participated or were present at any given time, it was by accident. And the Sky-Hi News looked into whether the third meeting of the day, a workshop with five members of the board present, was posted properly as required by open meetings laws. Witnesses say it wasn’t. Town officials say it was.
“The rationale behind the stakeholder group was to get specific people to show up,” Nelson said, saying the town council decided to extend invitations to select stakeholders for feedback only, not to make any policy decisions.
“We shared different thoughts, but nothing was solidified,” confirmed Seeman. “The meetings were just to get input.”
The public will have a chance to hear proposals and provide comment on the Sitzmark development at 10 a.m. this Friday, Oct. 25, at town hall. The town’s consultants will present ideas and concepts. Both concerned parties and town council members said they hope the meeting is well attended. “I don’t believe any action should be taken without a lively and respectful public discourse, where everyone has an opportunity to become educated,” Jones said.
Reid Tulley and Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334.