Aspen’s fiery debate smolders on |

Aspen’s fiery debate smolders on

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN – Sitting dormant on one of downtown Aspen’s most prominent corners is:

A) A warming amenity for all who pass by.

B) The ultimate symbol of the resort’s “glitter vs. green” hypocrisy.

C) A magnet for drunken ne’er-do-wells.

Take your pick.

Its gas-fired flames turned off for the summer, the town’s fire hearth looks these days more like an unattended spacecraft than a beacon for transients or the poster child for Aspen’s conflicting desires. It’s a place to sit in the shade or duck out of the rain during all but the coldest months of the year, when debate over the hearth seems to heat up as quickly as the temperatures drop.

The hearth, built on the pedestrian mall at the corner of Galena Street and Cooper Avenue, sprang from Aspen’s last recession – the post-9/11 economic slump that sparked much community discussion about how to make the town more inviting. The so-called “dwell” projects, aimed at enticing visitors to linger downtown, included an informational kiosk, visitor information center, the immensely popular tables and chairs scattered about the pedestrian malls (another 10 or so sets were added this year) and the hearth, which was finally fired up in February 2006.

But between the 2004 hiring of an architect to design the envisioned downtown features and the hearth’s eventual debut, the city hatched its Canary Initiative – an ambitious, multipronged approach to reducing Aspen’s contribution to global warming.

By the time the hearth produced a warm glow downtown, city officials and citizens couldn’t help but notice the contradiction between the city’s new mission to become an environmental leader and the prominent, gas-burning fixture in the commercial core.

The issue stills smolders, said Mayor Mick Ireland, who expects someone to reignite the debate eventually. And it hasn’t helped matters that the hearth has become a popular hangout for people engaged in unsavory activities – from public drinking to alleged unlawful sexual contact.

“Somebody will bring it up,” the mayor said. “There’s no way around it.”

The city’s first global warming project manager, Dan Richardson, was quick to point out the folly of burning fossil fuel in an outdoor hearth at the same time Aspen was spending time and resources trying to reduce its considerable carbon footprint (think private jets, heated driveways and mega-mansions). With its wintertime use, the City Council was told, the hearth emits about 9.5 tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, or about 40 percent of what an average Aspen home puts out in a year.

“In terms of scale, it doesn’t have a big impact,” said Kim Peterson, Richardson’s successor as global warming project manager. “I honestly don’t think the fire hearth is our problem in Aspen. It’s such a tiny part of our carbon output here.”

Former Mayor Helen Klanderud, who was in office when both the hearth and the Canary Initiative were approved, calls the environmental consequences of operating the hearth “much ado about nothing.

“Yes, it uses natural gas. Yes, we should be conserving energy… but where do you draw the line?” she mused. “Where do you find a reasonable balance?”

Nonetheless, it appeared the hearth might be shut down for good in spring 2008, after its automatic timer fired up the gas flames in mid-April, when temperatures soared into the 60s and most of the tourists had departed.

The City Council directed the city’s environmental staff and the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a local nonprofit, to find an alternative way to fuel the hearth.

The effort fizzled. A competition to come up with ideas produced suggestions like lighting the hearth with candles or laser lights, or powering it with dog poop – presumably by burning a waste product that is never in short supply in Aspen. None of the ideas were viable options to produce heat, light and an attractive gathering space.

The city staff examined other options – replacing the gas-fired workings with sculpture art in the form of flames that would actually be heated by a geothermal or solar source, for example, Peterson said. Hydrogen fuel was also considered, but that would have created a need for buried canisters and trucked-in deliveries.

“The problem is, it’s not really a good use of tens of thousands of dollars to change the fire hearth when its carbon output is minimal,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

With no suitable alternative to fuel the hearth, the city fired it up last winter from about Thanksgiving through March, running it from roughly 2 to 7 p.m. daily, according to Jeff Woods, city parks director.

For a one-month period, the highest gas bill for the hearth last winter was $299. The gas flames are complemented by electric radiant heat cast downward by elements in the roof.

Ireland questions the hearth’s effectiveness as a heater, if nothing else. “It does not keep anybody warm,” he said.

“I think it’s a colossal waste of resources,” said Aspenite Josh Griggs, seated at a table near the hearth last week. “If you’re cold, go inside, or get a better coat.”

If Aspen expected the cherubic faces of children toasting marshmallows reflected in the warm glow of its ring of fire, the town was perhaps surprised by the crowd that often gathers in the fading light of winter afternoons.

A decidedly seedier element often congregates there, resulting in arrests for public drinking and a couple of well-publicized cases involving charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and unlawful sexual contact that are still wending their way through the court system. While the alleged incidents took place at another trouble spot, Aspen’s nearby bus station, police reports tie the events to activities at both locales.

“Who it has attracted – I’m not sure we foresaw that,” Woods concedes.

The hearth, like the bus station and certain watering holes, is a regular stop for police officers on patrol in downtown Aspen, according to department spokesperson Stephanie Dasaro.

“For us, the fire pit is just one more place we make sure we check out,” she said.

Chris Bendon, the city’s director of community development, maintains the hearth is considered a “neat element” for the town, but one detractor labeled it a “troubling nuisance” in a letter to the editor last winter.

“Each day a group of middle-aged men gather around the fire and progressively become more and more foul. As the sun goes down and more liquor is consumed, the conversation turns to profanity. The atmosphere is intimidating and completely inappropriate for the heart of town, which has long been a family gathering point,” wrote Bret Mitchell of Aspen. “How long is the city/police going to tolerate this obscene and potentially dangerous behavior?”

“It’s attracting the wrong element,” agreed a retailer in the vicinity, who asked not to be identified. “They use such foul language, dropping F-bombs all over the place.

“I like the idea of a fire pit, but it’s not working.”

“A weird crowd is what I see around it usually,” agreed Mike Milota. As stage manager at nearby Belly Up Aspen, he passes by the site regularly and hangs out there himself on occasion.

“It’s really a nice version of the 55-gallon drum,” Milota said, in reference to the fire container traditionally favored by those down on their luck.

“It’s a good idea, but as a way to get people together, it needs to be rethought,” he added.

But supporters defend the hearth as an egalitarian gathering place – one that everyone can afford to enjoy.

“I think it’s a nice aesthetic. Even though it attracts a lot of teenagers and people who would be considered transient, they’re often not occupying that space,” said Dennis Dodson, an art consultant for nearby Pismo Fine Art Glass. “I have to say, sometimes when I’m taking a break, I’ll go over and sit there myself.”

“The fire pit is really kind of a conundrum,” said former Mayor Klanderud. “It has positive aspects and clearly can be an attractive nuisance.

“I don’t think you accept the fact that people are hanging out, getting drunk,” she said, suggesting some kind of solution can be found. “For a community that is apparently as intelligent and creative as this one, there’s got to be an answer to that.”

But the nature of that solution, and how to douse the controversy over the hearth’s environmental impact, remains the burning question.

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