Steamboat Springs The first phase of Steamboat’s $1.3 million Gloria Gossard Parkway is complete. There’s just nowhere for motorists to go on the new westside arterial road.
City of Steamboat Springs Public Works Director Philo Shelton said last week the parkway won’t be plowed this winter and won’t be open to traffic. It dead ends at a low saddle overlooking a grassy, now snow-covered field where residential subdivisions once were planned to meet the city’s need for workforce housing. To many, that seems like a different era.
“Five or six years ago, everyone on council was hearing the same thing. Housing prices were too high and we needed to do something,” former City Council President Loui Antonucci said late last week. “We’d been waiting for something to happen with the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan since about 1999. City Council and the county commissioners were trying to figure out why nothing had happened. We were wondering, ‘What could we do to jumpstart it?’”
The Gloria Gossard Parkway, known at that time as New Victory Highway, was seen as a link to new growth areas. Antonucci said he and other officials were reluctant to contemplate such a large public expenditure to benefit private developers, but pressure to address housing needs was building.
The Great Recession has jerked the extension ladder from beneath the subdivisions the parkway was intended to serve. So why was the costly road built at a time when the housing construction industry was moribund? The voters had rejected annexation of Steamboat 700, and the developers proposing to build subdivisions to the west of the city have all but disappeared since.
If there is a short answer to why construction on the road went forward in 2009, it lies in a cost-sharing agreement reached in November 2008 among the city, Routt County, and Jay Weinberg, the prospective developer of Overlook Park. Overlook Park is a proposed subdivision that could add 140 or more building lots to the city limits, but it lacked road access. It now has it, but Overlook Park is in foreclosure proceedings. Development of the land seems years away.
In addition to more than $1 million he reportedly invested in easements for a later stage of the road accessing his property, Weinberg kicked in another $100,000 for Phase 1 construction and paid for the engineering of the road, which includes a dramatic cut into a south-facing hillside off Downhill Drive.
Norbert Turek, Weinberg’s spokesman in Steamboat, said Weinberg’s urgency to build the access road stemmed from the fact that he had begun the city approval process in 2004 and still had not had a public hearing, having been told that the city planning staff would not process it until the parkway was part of the application.
City Councilman Walter Magill, who came on council in 2007, said he thought it was premature to allow construction of Phase 1 of the road before the developer had even a development permit.
“We put the cart before the horse,” Magill said Monday. “We were getting a lot of pressure from the developer and we got our hand forced — (Steamboat) 700 hadn’t been approved, and we were out there building a road. If you don’t have an approval, why are we building something?”
While Overlook Park is in foreclosure proceedings today, back then Weinberg expected to gain a city permit and roll right into construction.
The city agreed to pay for $700,000 of the construction of the $1.3 million first phase, and the county, a co-signer to the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan, agreed to cover $500,000.
Overlook Park’s bid was awarded to Duckels Construction in September 2009 for a total of $6.08 million. That price included the $1.3 million for Phase 1 of the parkway and $791,368 for Phase 2, which would wrap the road around Overlook Park and continue it to the Steamboat 700 property line.
The city would have no financial obligation for Phase 2, but Weinberg likely would have been able to bill a portion of that work to Steamboat 700. Phase 3, again entirely the responsibility of Overlook Park, would have built a spur road connecting the parkway to West End Village, an internal cul de sac, and paid for the cost of the dirt work involved in site leveling and drainage.
Sharing the cost
The cost-sharing agreement among the city, county and Overlook Park made Weinberg the developer of the road, though the city and county were paying for the vast majority of the Phase 1 work.
“This was 2008. You gotta understand, at that time, we said, ‘Great, you’re willing to take the risk — go ahead and build it,’” city attorney Tony Lettunich said last week.
However, less than a year later, with a public vote looming on the annexation of the much larger Steamboat 700 project, City Council directed Lettunich to try to put the brakes on the parkway construction.
On Sept. 18, 2009, Lettunich wrote to Alan Keeffe, the attorney for Weinberg’s Overlook Park Co., to see whether he could delay the start of construction until spring, when the results of the public vote on Steamboat 700 would be known.
“The City Council expressed grave reservations about commencing construction of the New Victory Highway at this time,” Lettunich wrote. “I have been authorized … to suggest to you and your client that commencing construction at this time could have serous consequences.”
Six days later, Keeffe responded with a list of four requirements for delaying construction until spring, including escrowing its 2008 appropriation to the costs, noting that it was unclear whether the city would release the funds given its reluctance to begin the work.
“In conclusion, Overlook is desirous to commence work on (New Victory Highway) immediately … we believe that the city owes an obligation of good faith and fair dealing to proceed,” Keeffe wrote.
City Council President Pro Tem Jon Quinn said council members didn’t feel like they had a choice in the matter.
“In order to put our foot down, we felt we would have had to withhold funds, which probably would have resulted in a lawsuit,” he said.
Further complicating the issue is the city’s involvement in a tandem lawsuit with residents about West Acres Mobile Home Park and Steamboat excavating contractor C.D. Johnson over compensation related to the condemnation of the land needed to move forward with construction of Gloria Gossard Parkway.
Antonucci said he probably wasn’t paying close enough attention in the mid-2000s to the city’s ongoing efforts to condemn land in a dedicated greenbelt attached to the mobile home park, where the new parkway runs today. He said he was surprised to learn at a council meeting in 2009 how close the road ran behind the neighborhood.
Lettunich said it long had been understood where the course of the road would run.
Quinn continues to think that Steamboat has to plan for future growth.
“I still look at the housing stock for people who make the median income; you still have to wonder, ‘Where are they going to live?’” Quinn said. “My first Steamboat real estate was a condo that cost $80,000 that would sell for $220,000 today even at a 30 percent discount (from the market’s peak). It’s still a pretty steep path to get locals into homes today.”
The experience of planning for and building the first phase of the parkway has led Quinn to think it’s time to revisit how the community wants to prepare for growth in the future.
“Is it still foreseeable that Steamboat 700 will ever come back to the city?” he asked.
Quinn isn’t certain when the community will perceive a need to grow its boundaries, if ever.
“The Gloria Gossard Parkway, its alignment, the impetus for it and the cost-sharing agreement, captures a lot of the history of our planning to grow in a controlled way,” Quinn said. “You look at the three years, four years, five years in the recent past when we were trying to make sure we had the infrastructure to accomplish (the plan), to today, when people say, ‘We don’t need to grow anywhere.’”
Shelton, the public works director, said Gloria Gossard Parkway will serve an immediate purpose even though it won’t carry traffic anytime soon.
“We’ve completed a water line loop to West Acres (giving the system redundancy in case of a problem), which it didn’t have before,” he said.