The Making of a Village: Lessons Learned from Snowmass Base Village

It can take a village — along with healthy amounts of collaboration, flexibility, patience and trust — to successfully execute a village design project, particularly when market conditions, project players and entitlements are seemingly in constant flux. Just ask OZ Architecture Principal Mairi Mashburn, AIA, LEED AP BD +C, who has been part of the Snowmass Base Village project team for more than 15 years.

The multi-phased Snowmass Base Village development project dates back two decades, to 1999. It encompasses 63,000 sq. ft. of restaurant & retail development, 600 residential units, 100 hotel rooms, a transit center, underground parking for residents and skiers, a central loading dock and mechanical plant, and a reception building. OZ Architecture, which joined the project in 2002, designed the ski-in/ski-out Limelight Hotel Snowmass to anchor and provide a “living room” for the base village, along with an adjacent public plaza/ice rink as an all-season gathering space, and the Lumen, a high-end condominium building.

After enduring two economic cycles, multiple owner groups and a myriad other fits and starts, the Snowmass Base Village project now is moving forward with vision and purpose. A panel discussion at the American Planning Association (APA) Colorado Chapter’s conference in September offered an opportunity for key project participants to reflect on what they learned from the process. The panel was moderated by Mashburn and featured Gert Van Moorsel, vice president of design and construction for the Little Nell Hospitality Group, Andy Gunion, managing partner – Snowmass at East West Partners, and Julie Ann Woods, community development director for the Town of Snowmass Village.

Among the key takeaways they shared about guiding a village project toward completion amid so much change:

  1. Teamwork and a true spirit of partnership can overcome uncertainty and upheaval. A housing boom and bust, a financial market crash followed by a deep economic recession, then a recovery and prolonged period of growth, left the Snowmass Base Village project on uncertain footing for extended stretches of time. These macro factors impacted not only demand for a mountain resort village of this type, but also the community of Snowmass Village as well as the project’s developers. When the current ownership group consisting of EWP, ASC and KSL acquired the base village, they committed to working with the town of Snowmass Village to get the development right. Creating a more flexible entitlements process was an important step in moving the project along, as was ensuring that the town’s vision for the village remained front-of-mind among the developers, even as the makeup of the development group was changing. At times when it would have been easy for key parties to take an adversarial approach with one another, they instead rallied around the common goal of creating an outcome that is in the best interests of locals, visitors and project partners alike.
  • Build flexibility into the entitlements process. Less prescriptive, more performance-based codes and standards can simplify and speed the process of gaining permits and approvals from the many agencies and groups involved, enabling town planners and project developers to work together to realize the town’s vision for the project.
  • Develop a strong sense of how to navigate the local entitlement process, because that process can be highly nuanced, with extensive public involvement.
  • Assume there will be flux. The longer a project lasts, the stronger the likelihood that economic and market conditions, project partners, community priorities, permitting personnel, codes and other factors will change.
  • Learn what the community values most in a village, and be diligent about protecting that vision throughout the process. Amid so many fits and starts, it would have been easy for the community vision for Snowmass Base Village to get muddied or lost in the shuffle. Ongoing engagement by town officials and community members ensured that wouldn’t be the case with Snowmass. They continued to work closely and patiently with members of the Snowmass Base Village development and design teams, even as those teams were in flux, to convey their vision for the village. That engagement proved to be invaluable in helping developers to understand the community’s priorities, and how those priorities may have shifted amid changing market and economic conditions.
  • Learn to live in the gray. Unnecessarily prescriptive or rigid codes and standards can slow a project. When town planners and project partners are comfortable working collaboratively to interpret entitlement criteria, outcomes tend to be better.
  • Trust your partners. Collaborative efforts around entitlements and around the village project as a whole generally produce better outcomes when the various key players, including town officials and project partners, trust one another and are working toward the same goal: creating a coherent, appealing and functional village that includes spaces and places where locals and visitors alike genuinely want to spend time. After two decades, Snowmass Village finally is well on its way to achieving that vision.

“There is no prescription to follow for designing a village,” said Mashburn, summing up her experience with the project. “Snowmass Base Village has the destination that will only be enhanced as the partners move forward in the next phases of design.”