1. The White Shirts
December 26, 2006
In 2006, a new group came to symbolize the battle for the heart and soul of Aspen: The White Shirts.On April 7, local Les Holst wrote a letter to The Aspen Times challenging “friends of Aspen” to stand up for the city they love, and against a tide of redevelopment.Three days later, nearly 50 people donned the first of Holst’s “We Heart Aspen” T-shirts and descended on a City Council meeting to make their voices heard about losing Aspen’s landmarks. Since then, White Shirt-clad citizens have popped up at various city meetings, although not in nearly as great a force as the first. But even without the numbers, the message of the White Shirts is clear: Save Aspen’s Soul.Holst’s call to arms was a response to what he perceived as the loss of Aspen’s history and character.”First the small lodges were abandoned,” he wrote in his letter. “Then the historic nature of the West End started to evaporate with the lot splits. Now, the worst of all, certain members of the City Council and city staff have decided to abandon the historic commercial core of the community itself.”Later that month, the council imposed an emergency moratorium on all nonresidential building permits and applications. Then, in December, it enacted another ban, this time on building interiors in Aspen’s commercial core.Among the developments that sparked fear in the community were a controversial “party pool” at a residence overlooking Hallam Lake, large-scale redevelopment plans for the Limelite Lodge, and plans to subdivide the Blue Vic property at the corner of Monarch and Bleeker streets.Other proposals that squeaked in under the first moratorium’s wire were redevelopment plans for the Boomerang Lodge and Aspen’s bedrock lodging establishment, the Hotel Jerome.
The Boomerang’s owners agreed to preserve portions of the hotel designed and built by original owner Charlie Paterson, and they scaled back plans for the new hotel significantly after critics called the proposal an 800-pound gorilla sitting squat in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
And even though owners of the Jerome nixed plans to add fourth-floor suites to the annex building, some locals are still concerned about renovations to the hotel’s interior.In both cases, members of the community turned out – with and without White Shirts – to oppose major changes to the familiar facades.Meanwhile, Aspenites watched as beloved businesses lost their leases or went up for sale. That fueled further fears that in addition to losing historic buildings, the town would lose the last establishments that have catered to locals for decades.
Among them are the Isis Theatre and Explore Booksellers and Bistro, both of which are for sale, as well as a number of popular restaurants that have gone defunct or announced they soon will close their doors.Holst and his cadre of Shirts see the loss of businesses as more than just the loss of buildings. These places, they say, are vital to bringing people together in venues where they interact. Without them, Aspen’s streets will be reduced to sterile rows of office space and high-end retail stores, a series of dead spaces that signal the death of a once-lively town.The White Shirts don’t necessarily agree on a solution. But they do agree that the current spate of for-sale signs and subsequent redevelopments are the beginning of the end. By giving a voice to locals who feel the same way, they have helped instill the idea that Aspen is not just in a state of flux, but actually a state of emergency.It was in this atmosphere that the council adopted the moratoria and helped broker a creative deal to save the Isis without buying it (if all goes as planned).Members of the community also implored Aspen’s City Council to save Explore when it went on the market. The council, however, is leery of setting a precedent for the purchase and preservation of local businesses or buildings.
That doesn’t mean it’s not looking for other ways. Shortly after the Red Onion announced it would close its doors in March because of a tripling – or more – of its lease, the council decided to broaden its scope with the new moratorium. With this latest move, the city seeks to protect historic interiors in Aspen’s commercial core, with an eye toward preserving the buildings’ current uses.Holst has said from the beginning that not everyone in the White Shirts agrees on all the issues. But they do seem willing to rally around his cry to save the soul of the community, as embodied in its last great places.As the new year dawns, Aspen remains frozen – sort of – in the slushy grip of two building bans.Whatever the outcome, opponents of change have suited up for a fight in their White Shirts.