'Natural' convention center plan advances

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AP photo Sketches for a "traditional" style conference center have earned support about equal to those who favor a "natural" design for the facility.

Scott N. Miller
November 22, 2004

VAIL - If the Vail conference center was an airplane, it would be running a little late, but on course, and no one would know exactly what it looked like.

The center's form may be coming into clearer view, though. Based on results from a series of open houses to show off designs for the center, public opinion seems split about equally between two ideas, one with a "traditional Vail" look, the other a "natural" design meant to blend with the town's terrain around the town. That plan included a "curvilinear" roof that would create snow cornices in the winter.

Vail's Conference Center Advisory Committee, which is overseeing the plans, recently recommended the Vail Town Council choose the "natural" design. The council will discuss the designs at its Dec. 7 meeting. Three of the advisory committee's seven members were absent, but the remaining four all voted for the design.

Choosing a design won't be as easy as a recommendation and a vote, though.

The natural design has been both praised and panned for its ambition. Fans have called the design "iconic" and a chance to create a building that could become as well-known as the Sydney Opera House.

Other comments are less kind. One person at the open house sessions called the natural design a "snowcone." Another called a proposed tree feature "ludicrous." And one e-mailer likened the structure to "Fred Flintstone's house."

There also seems to be a concerted effort building to lobby for the "traditional" design.

AP photo The Vail Conference Center Advisory Committee has recommended this "natural" design to the Vail Town Council. The council will discuss the project at its Dec. 7 meeting.
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"In the e-mails I've been getting, there's a definite political action toward" the traditional design, Vail Village Homeowners Association Director Jim Lamont said.

That effort was reflected in written comments submitted at the open houses. More than a dozen of the comments were versions of the same four form letters, the most succinct of which was, "I am a very strong supporter of the 'Traditional Vail vernacular style.'"

While no hard numbers are available, Vail Community Development Department Director Russell Forrest said the "natural" and "traditional" designs seem to be favored by 35 to 40 percent of people who have commented.

"Another 20 percent or so are intrigued by the natural option, but want to know more," Forrest said.

Those who attended the recent advisory group meeting all favored the natural design, though. "If there's one place in Vail that can handle non-traditional architecture, this is it," local architect Jeff Winston said.

Numbers game

Whichever design is picked, the numbers so far are still in line with projections, Forrest said.

The first estimates put the total cost of the center at around $43.8 million, Forrest said. Very early estimates for the traditional and natural designs can both hit that target, more or less.

The natural design is about $800,000 more expensive in the first batch of numbers turned out by Architectural Resource Consultants, the town's "owner's representative," and the design team led by Denver's Fentress Bradburn architects.

But, architect Kurt Fentress said, that cost difference would likely disappear if the traditional center's roof was made "interesting" with peaks and valleys over the entire building. "You don't want to do a big box with a nice facade," he said.

Town Council and advisory committee member Kent Logan, who has been reviewing cost estimates and the bond markets, said he remains comfortable with the numbers as they evolve.

But between construction costs and bond interest rates, the center's finances will be tight, he said.

Either way, the numbers on a nearly $44 million project relatively close.

"I don't think price should have any bearing on which design you choose," Vail resident and former councilman Bill Jewitt said.

Tough choices

The advisory committee had hoped to present the council enough information to issue bonds by the end of this year, but that isn't going to happen.

Logan said the new "go/no-go" date - the day a decision is made whether or not to issue bonds - is now Feb. 5. Forrest said, ""It looks like interest rates will still be where they need to be by then."

But the numbers might change. If so, the project may stall. Or, Forrest said, a third option - downsizing the whole project - might be considered.

For Lamont, whose job it is to track trends in Vail on behalf of second-home owners, said enough progress has been made in other parts of town that putting the conference center on hold isn't as unthinkable as it once was.

"If it doesn't happen right away, we're not going to go hand-wringing into the night," he said.

But the advisory committee seems eager to take the project in for a successful landing.

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or

By the numbers

2: Potential designs drawing about equal praise

13: Weeks (more or less) until "go/no-go" decision is made

301: Comments recorded during a recent series of open houses

$3 million: Annual collections from lodging tax that will fund the center

$43.8 million: Anticipated budget

2007: Projected opening date

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado