Burlingame: a worthy goal, a difficult choice | AspenTimes.com
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Burlingame: a worthy goal, a difficult choice

We have rarely – perhaps the better word is “never” – been faced with a decision as difficult as the one that must be made on the Burlingame affordable-housing development. The fault line on this question seems to run at a different angle from almost every other question facing this community. There are old-timers on both sides of the Burlingame question. There are environmentalists on both sides. There are government officials, government opponents, Mick Ireland recallers and Mick Ireland supporters on both sides.

There are even fierce affordable-housing advocates on both sides of this particular affordable-housing question.

Both the good and the bad sides of Burlingame are easy to see.

The good is simple and clear: The project will provide more than 200 desperately needed affordable-housing units within the Aspen urban area.

In most cases, that simple statement would be enough to gain immediate, overwhelming support from virtually everyone – except the immediate neighbors. But Burlingame, as we have already said, is difficult. The obvious good it will accomplish is accompanied by an equally obvious list of serious flaws.

To begin with – and perhaps most seriously – Burlingame is not really part of Aspen. The site is about three miles from downtown. That’s a little too far and in this case, a little is a lot. That far from town, Burlingame will represent sprawl, the helter-skelter expansion of the city onto a site comprised of several hundred acres of sageland. The residents of the project will undoubtedly generate several thousand automobile trips per day in and out of town, dumping more traffic onto the already overcrowded highway – right into the section that is intended to remain a two-lane road, a designated bottleneck. The project will undoubtedly require a new stop light on the highway. And, although part of the Burlingame land adjoins Highway 82, the housing will be nearly half a mile off the highway, distant from existing bus routes.

The list of Burlingame’s flaws goes on and on. The city may have cut a bad deal with the Zoline family, the private developers who will reap an enormous profit on the deal, with the city perhaps carrying an unfair portion of the expenses of the Zoline development.

The Burlingame project is dangerously expensive. Preliminary estimates are that it will cost the city more than $72 million, with sales of the affordable units bringing in only about $50 million – leaving the housing program to cover a $22 million deficit.

The units in the project are slanted too heavily toward the more expensive end of the “affordable” scale. A substantial majority of the 225 units will sell for more than $200,000 – shutting out many of the workers who are the ostensible beneficiaries of the project.

The project will disrupt what is now open land, a viable and valuable wildlife habitat.

The city and housing authority, in their determination to see the project come to fruition, have run roughshod over many of the niceties of public participation, cutting deals with developers in closed-door meetings and shutting off public debate through what some have described as strong-arm tactics.

Seen in this light, Burlingame is bad planning, it is bad for transportation, bad for the environment, bad for public faith in government, bad for the city’s finances. The list could easily go on.

And yet …

And yet it is a response – admittedly a somewhat desperate response, but also a very real and valid response – to the housing shortage that so many of us have identified as being at the heart of many of Aspen’s ills.

The people who live in Burlingame may not be able to walk to work; but if they drive, their drive will be a short one. They will be as much a part of Aspen as the people who live on Red Mountain or in Mountain Valley. Aspen will be their hometown – and Aspen needs to be more people’s “hometown.”

One would hope that, at this stage of the game, we do not have to spend much time or space explaining why Aspen’s identity as a community is in danger if the town cannot maintain a solid, diverse population. The wealthy may be fine people indeed, but a real town needs to be more than just an enclave of the wealthy and privileged. Aspen’s greatest asset has always been that it is a “real town” – that asset is seriously endangered by the shortage of housing.

We are forced to match the seriousness of the housing shortage against the seriousness of Burlingame’s flaws. That is why the decision is so difficult. In order to support Burlingame, one must declare that housing is Aspen’s pre-eminent problem by such an overwhelming margin that we can ignore the very real problems with Burlingame.

We believe that this is the case.

We would rather not see Aspen extended in a solid strip of development all the way to the airport. But, to a certain extent, it already has – and even so, we prefer a more real, vibrant Aspen to a more beautiful, sterile city.

Those who declare there are other, better sites would have done well to actually identify those sites – or, at least, to pledge themselves to finding those sites and fighting without reservation to ensure that affordable housing would be built on those sites. It is a little late in the game to object to any viable site without providing a more viable alternative – and personal commitment to go with it.

As a final note, we would argue that this election is not the final word on Burlingame. It is simply the approval of a preannexation agreement necessary for the project to move ahead. If Burlingame does get voter support on Tuesday, we will urge the city to continue to work to find other sites. With Burlingame in hand, it would perhaps still not be too late to find a better site for the project. We would suggest, for openers, the Moore Open Space, which is far closer to downtown and closer to existing transportation routes.

But even if no better site is found, Aspen needs this development.

We urge city residents to Vote YES on Burlingame.


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