By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
Roaring Fork School District no longer needs money or even, strictly speaking, approval from the Town of Carbondale to build a staff housing complex on Third Street, but that won’t stop RFSD from trying to live up to the “Community Partnership” name.
The Carbondale Planning and Zoning Commission certainly found little to object to as the Roaring Fork School District voluntarily went through the standard approval process on March 16, while the sole public comment came down to questions more than objections.
Indeed, town staff recommended rezoning approval at the start of the meeting, citing almost complete compliance with town standards. The project fell short on number of street trees but provided twice the minimum overall, leading Town Planner Janet Buck to note that the requirement might be worth revisiting.
“I think they set a high bar for development in town using the Unified Development Code,” she said.
“I think the things you seen in the plan are going to look very familiar for all of you who worked on the UDC,” agreed local planning consultant Bob Schultz, who helped present the project. “We think it’s a better project because we’re working together.”
Under the proposal, a 1.37-acre plot currently occupied by a bus barn would be rezoned to high density residential, allowing for the construction of 20 school subsidized apartments totalling 33,000 square feet across four buildings. Unlike pre-recession plans for the property, most of the existing athletic field would remain open and the only new connection to Weant Boulevard and Highway 133 would be a limited access fire lane. There are no current plans to further develop the lot, although one of the buildings — probably number three or number four – may be constructed in a second stage. It all depends on how the final estimates stack up against the $5 million RFSD allocated for staff housing from a recent bond issue.
“If all the chips fell into place, we would just do the whole thing,” Schultz said. “That would be the cheapest and least impactful.”
The cost is likely to be higher, however, thanks in part to attempts to reduce the impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
“There were some diagrams that were drawn as large single structures. Those were really quickly ruled out,” explained architect jv (sic) DeSousa of Reveal. “The view from the main reading room in the library has also done a lot to shape the planning and development of the project.”
DeSousa recalled spending one cold and snowy afternoon walking through town, trying to get a sense of Carbondale’s architectural style, which he decided came down to “funky.”
“This is the only community that has ever asked me for a mudroom,” he noted.
Considerations for the local lifestyle include roofs designed to accommodate large solar arrays, and bulk storage for outdoor gear and the like on the ground floor. There’s also space for bicycle parking – though maybe not enough.
That was one of the few concerns raised by alternate P&Z member Jay Engstrom, who noted that while the bulk storage could accommodate some as well, “most people around here have more than one bike.”
P&Z member Gavin Brooke, himself an architect, also had some self-admitted micromanaging questions. He questioned the location of bulk storage in some otherwise prime locations, as well as limited off-street guest parking, but neither issue seemed to be a sticking point. He later moved for rezoning approval, which passed 5-0.
“I know that that state is the governing body here, and you don’t have to be here,” chair Michael Durant said in closing. “We’re grateful that you are.”
The day after the meeting, The Sopris Sun caught up with RFSD Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gatlin to expand a bit on the district’s vision.
“It’s going to be a cool product,” he said. “We’re really proud of it. Hopefully the town’s proud of it, too.”
Indeed, the teacher housing initiative seems to be coming together in Carbondale more easily than in Basalt – where the purchase of 17 units is pending – and Glenwood Springs – where six are slated to be built and others may have to wait.
The Community Partnership space, meanwhile, may allow for even more than 20 staff members when the potential for married teachers or simply roommates is factored in.
“The more staff we can get in the units, the more strategic we’re being,” Gatlin said.
Demand should be high if a survey conducted last year is any guide, and while not everyone may be thrilled to live surrounded by co-workers, Gatlin hopes it will actually prove beneficial.
“We’ve looked at other programs, and it has created this sense of camaraderie,” he said. “It’s been recognized as a potential issue, but I don’t think it outweighs the benefits.”
The rental cost is also anticipated to be very competitive.
“They should be pretty good deals,” Gatlin said. “It’s not going to fly if we don’t provide price points that are attractive to our staff.”
Even so, RFSD expects to make a little money after operating expenses – a request for proposal is currently pending for property management – which can be reinvested into more rentals or into some sort of ownership assistance.
“I think the most important thing we do is put quality teachers in our classroom and quality staff in our buildings,” Gatlin said. “There were some pretty key folks that left, and housing was a big part of that.”
The pay rate for most teachers is in that awkward zone above most affordable housing requirements but below what it generally takes to rent or own locally – assuming one can find a vacancy. While some contend that the solution is just to pay teachers more, that’s not entirely within the district’s control.
“As much as we’re able to increase our mill, it’s not enough to make the difference,” Gatlin said. “Knowing we could put one-time capital dollars into something seemed like a more viable option.”
“There’s a genuine level of excitement about this coming,” he added. “People are jazzed, and that’s really cool.”
The Community Partnership Development will go before the Carbondale Board of Trustees on April 25.