Aspen electeds dig their way out of analysis paralysis over housing project

City Council members spend five hours this hashing Aspen Lumberyard conceptual plan

It took five hours for the five members of Aspen City Council earlier this week to come to an agreement on how to move forward on an estimated $330 million affordable housing development.

In what was described by Mayor Torre at the end of Monday’s five-hour work session as a “bit of a wrestling match,” the meeting was heavy on elected officials talking past each other and in circles, and focusing on minutia on a conceptual plan for the Lumberyard site near the Airport Business Center.

It got to a point in the third hour of the meeting that Chris Everson, the city’s affordable housing program, suggested that all of the work that’s been done for the past year be put on hold as council decides what it wants.

“I’m quite frankly overwhelmed with the amount of competing priorities that are being introduced in front of us today after what we got from you in October,” he told council.

Everson and Jason Jaynes, managing principal of DHM Design, a land planning consulting firm that the city hired to help develop the 10.45-acre site, which the municipal government paid $30 million for, were asking for specific direction on next steps after council came to consensus in October on elements like underground parking and mix of units.

But instead of verifying the validity of the last year’s worth of community outreach and feedback, as well as modifications to the conceptual designs and housing program, council spent hours discussing finer detail points that are typically hashed out at schematic or final design.

Council members questioned where all the excavated dirt will go; the orientation of the buildings and whether they will get enough sunlight; the architecture of the buildings; the location and potential activation of the planned open space between the buildings; the connection to the trail system; traffic egress and ingress; the location of the bus stop; solar panels and other minutia.

Council members also seemed to deviate from their position last month that the 310-unit project should have its 432 parking spaces underground.

That was after the math was presented that at roughly $70,000 a space, underground parking would be a $40 million price tag on the project.

Some suggested having a mix of underground and surface parking, although that flies in the face of council’s prior consensus to maximize the land for as much density as possible.

At about three hours and 30 minutes into the meeting, Councilmember Skippy Mesirow questioned who the housing was being built for and whether the city should design the apartments specific to individuals’ needs.

That’s despite the close to 800 respondents of a community-wide survey and other public outreach that gave specific information on what residents want and need.

Also, as the chairperson of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board, Mesirow acknowledged that there is a massive deficit of low income category one and two units, with the latter having an income cap of $60,000 a year for one person.

“We are giving very confusing advice right now,” he said. “I really believe that comes down to the fact that we haven’t, for us, identified some very basic questions around the intention, purpose and audience for this project and I think until we do that and are unified on a consensus view of what we are trying to achieve and for whom we are going to continue to offer advice that is confusing.”

A valley-wide regional study also has outlined the need for housing and what type.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said the need is great across the spectrum.

Three hours into the discussion, Richards said she had heard more than five different things from the five council members and suggested that the project needed a redesign.

An hour prior to that comment, she said it’s a project of competing interests and tradeoffs.

“I don’t know how we as a group of five get beyond designing a camel out of an elephant,” Richards said.

During its Oct. 26 work session, council’s direction mirrored what were the common themes that came from the third round of public outreach on the project.

In his memo to council for the Nov. 23 work session, Everson noted that he was given direction last month for the design team to pursue underground parking, some four-story buildings, increasing the number of one- and two-bedroom units and the amount of ownership units, among other elements of the project.

As it stands now, there would 48 studio apartments for rent; 100 one-bedrooms for rent and 40 for ownership; 64 two-bedrooms for rent and 42 for ownership; and 16 three-bedrooms for ownership.

Torre, in his attempt to wrangle in the long-winded comments from his colleagues, kept reiterating that there was consensus among the group despite what Everson and Jaynes were hearing.

“This council always has lively discussions, we are five different people that are representing different perspectives,” he said. “Conceptually I think we are all pretty much rowing in the same direction, some have a shorter or longer paddle perhaps.”

Councilman Ward Hauenstein was succinct in his position that he agreed with the validity of the community feedback, and remained supportive of underground parking and unit mix.

He, like the others, told Everson and Jaynes they did a great job responding to feedback from council and the community.

“I hear your frustration and share it,” he said. “I have a frustration that this council needs to be able to make a decision and stick to it.

“We need to make a decision, check the box and move on and don’t continually second-guess our decisions, we’ve got to keep going forward.”

Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she was reluctant to change the unit mix, and did not support a redesign.

“If was a consultant I would be a little bit nervous now hearing what’s been said,” she said after over three hours of discussion. “We have spent a long, long time and put a lot of credibility in what the community has had to say, the feedback from the surveys, etc. and it’s up to us to tweak it.”

Richards said perhaps it was her fault for suggesting a redesign, noting that sitting by herself in the basement of City Hall due to COVID-19 has its pitfalls when trying to have a thoughtful discussion.

“It’s a matter of all of us reconciling our own differences, our own wish lists when you can’t have everything on the site,” she said.

Approaching the fifth hour of discussion, council agreed to staff’s recommendation to let the design team continue to modify the conceptual plan and move toward schematic design while preparing a request for proposals for potential public-private partnerships in the project.

Council is scheduled to meet in January to discuss goals and a timeline for those types of partnerships.

The final words of Monday’s meeting came from Scott Miller, the city’s public works director, who said he agreed with Torre that there is more common ground among council members than is realized.

“The good news is we’re at conceptual, not schematic or construction drawing so if we had to spend a little more time in conceptual that’s why we are in conceptual,” he said. “Let’s get it right.”



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