John Colson: Hit and Run | AspenTimes.com

John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Sometimes, it seems as though Carbondale was founded, way back in the 1880s, with the Village at Crystal River commercial proposal sitting like a giant old horny toad on the town’s western flank, unfulfilled, just a little ugly and taking up far too much time, energy and concern.

Sometimes I get mad about it, as I ponder the machinations of the different developers who have tried to get something, anything built there over the course of a decade and more.

Other times, I just get tired of the whole thing. Too tired to get mad, even.

But then, as the political fatigue settles into my solar plexus and I think about picking up a book to distract myself, I think again – this fatigue is just what the developers have always counted on. Wear us down to the point where all we want to do is lie down and rest, that’s been their tactic from the beginning.

Then I get mad all over again, and try to think of a way out of this nasty, endless loop that started when a foolish speculator spent way too much money on this 24-acre chunk of ground, back when property sales were booming and common sense had retreated to the level of a whisper in the dark.

Such were my thoughts when I read that the town council has directed its staff to draw up the approval documents for 125,000 square feet of commercial space, including a new, 58,000 square-foot home for the City Market grocery store; 15,000 square feet of office space and possibly up to 164 residential units.

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The top-knot of this not-so-pretty package, of course, is the mystical “flex zone,” a portion of the project site where nothing is certain, but everything is possible.

The developer likes this aspect of the plan. It means he doesn’t have to say exactly what he will build there, or plan for there. Of course, it also means that we, the town, have no idea what will end up there. Could be a fast-food joint, could be a medical marijuana greenhouse, could be a parking lot, could be a striptease bar could be a four-story apartment complex. Lots of possibilities there, eh?

As has been pointed out by the redoubtable Bob Schultz, the only solid probability regarding the flex zone is that the land in that zone should be fairly easy to sell to the next speculator down the line. Which undoubtedly is why the developer likes it so much.

But all this “get ready, ’cause here it comes” fervor truly only points to one thing – process fatigue on the part of the town council.

There is speculation that it was the VCR conundrum that led to the recent ouster of the town manager and the chief town planner, which robbed the community of decades worth of experience in land use planning skills.

Whether the speculation is accurate or not, it is undeniable that bad decisions get made when the decider is tired, even if that decider normally is filled with wisdom and foresight.

I hesitate to say the town should hold off on a decision about the VCR project, since it already has dragged out for far too long.

Perhaps the town, and the developer, should simply admit that this is not the right time to be making these kinds of decisions. There is plenty of land in the town’s core to be developed, redeveloped or rehabilitated. And those properties have the advantage of being in a position to strengthen the town center rather than weaken it, whereas the VCR has a great potential for taking business away from the town core and thus weakening its vitality.

Redevelopment of existing properties would have the added advantage of stimulating the moribund construction industry in town, but in a way that spruces up what it already here rather than taking fertile, vacant land and building something on it.

Of course, the VCR development team doesn’t want to hear this. They’ve invested money into the land, they want to make money out of it.

But the plain fact is that they made a bad investment, and they may just have to live with it. I never have understood why it is that developers assume that it is the job of the community at large to rescue them from their own bad moves.

I mean, capitalism is supposed to be a game of risk, and the fact that developers can become fabulously wealthy is part of that game. But so is the fact that developers also can fall on their faces and lose everything if they make a bad choice.

The town is not the guarantor of this developer’s gamble.

jcolson@aspentimes.com

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