Candidates for Aspen City Council reflect on accomplishments and shortfalls
Editor’s note: This is part of a series about mayoral and City Council candidates’ views on the top issues Aspen faces today, including incumbent members of the council, as well.
The Aspen City Council was updated recently on the progress and status of its goals — primarily from August 2022 through this January.
Topics included the Burlingame Early Childhood Education Center and other child-care capacity goals, waste-code revisions, building-code adoptions, affordable housing, and fleet electrification.
“We have had a lot of accomplishments,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said. “I know that people don’t always view it that way, but we made progress on our three goals: increase child care, reduce greenhouse emissions, and increase affordable housing.”
Affordable child care might be the most controversial on this list. The goal was to increase the number of available child-care spaces.
To that end, four additional rooms at the Yellow Brick became available in July 2022 for a new child-care provider. The city also signed a lease in December for rooms 2, 4, 5, and 6 with Ajax Cubs to provide child care for children ages 2 months to 5 years for a minimum 200 days a year.
Ajax Cubs are finalizing licensing and staffing for the newly-renovated space and anticipated opening initially with one toddler classroom last week and opening the other classrooms as they are staffed. This program has been subsidized by Kids First with start-up funding, materials, equipment, and coaching. Kids First will work with the Ajax Cubs directors to ensure they participate in the Kids First grants, teacher incentive program, and coaching to promote professional development and increase quality.
Little Steps College opened Dec. 5, also subsidized by Kids First with start-up funding, materials, equipment, and coaching. Little Steps College is serving eight families and has six to seven babies each day.
Preschool of the Arts at the Jewish Community Center opened in September. They are serving eight to 12 families with children 3 to 5 years old. They are participating in the Kids First city of Aspen Wage Enhancement Program.
“Council’s largest accomplishment is in the realm of child care,” City Council candidate Sam Rose acknowledged. “This is strange to say because of the debacle at the Yellow Brick with playgroup. But outside of that, the council has made great progress with their new programs introduced to help attract, retain, and train new child-care providers. Sixteen new teachers have been hired between September and January, and new child-care classrooms have been opened.”
Councilman Skippy Mesirow didn’t agree: “I think failure of the current council is a poorly handled transition at the Yellow Brick, which left numerous families with great fear for significant time.”
Councilwoman Rachael Richards echoed his assessment: “Frankly, two years of notice and working with our child-care providers to provide a full week’s worth of service in the taxpayer-funded facility did not pan out. We had an operator leave. We offered aid, enticement, an opportunity to share the classroom in order to provide a full week of service, and it didn’t work.”
Mayor Torre was more enthusiastic: “Child care and education has received teacher pay support, program rent waivers, and new operators at the Yellow Brick and CMC campus, as well as identifying additional capacity opportunities,” he said.
However, he added, “I believe that we still need some facts and data around valleywide child care. We are awaiting information on enrollment forecasts, capacity needs, staff challenges, and regional planning that will help us with next steps and direction.”
“I’m disappointed with the child care at Yellow Brick,” Councilman John Doyle said. “The situation was very misconstrued in the papers. It made me feel as if the city was fault. We were really trying to increase child care from four to five days a week. All the while we are negotiating with the operator, she is trying to sell the business. We were trying to increase child-care space. Nobody thought it was a bad idea.”
In April 2022, the council adopted the 2022-26 Affordable Housing Strategic Plan. The plan sets a goal of 500 affordable housing units over the next five years. Half of these units would be achieved through development-neutral strategies.
“Housing has seen the newly-created strategic plan document promote and progress program improvements, partnership opportunities, capital maintenance, deed restriction buy outs, and new inventory,” Torre said.
The city’s voters in November voted 62% to impose a 5% tax on nightly room rates for short-term rentals with lodge-exempt permits (STR-LE) and owner-occupied unit permits (STR-OO). For second-home owners and investment properties (STR-C), 2A will implement a 10% increase. The city will begin collecting on bookings that happen after April 30, and the city estimates revenue will exceed $9 million. The city will allocate at least 70% of that revenue to fund affordable-housing projects, and the remaining 30% will go to infrastructure maintenance and environmental-protection initiatives.
“I think obviously passing the STR tax was huge; changing our residential demolition rules was important as well,” Doyle said.
Construction on the Burlingame Ranch Phase 3, 79-unit condominium project is nearing completion, and units are anticipated to be ready for sale this year.
“We continue to work on WH (workforce housing), actually adding new units, but that did not happen last year because of delays on bringing BGIII (Burlingame Ranch Phase 3) online. Seventy-nine more units at BGIII will be ready within a couple of months,” said Hauenstein.
“Council has taken positive steps in the affordable-housing realm like a right-sizing pilot program and being close to opening Burlingame Ranch Phase 3; but at this time, they are mostly just steps and not major accomplishments just yet,” Rose said.
“Our greatest success is the comprehensive, strategic, and multi-faceted work to address every angle of the affordable-housing challenge,” Mesirow said.
“Council deliberately set just a few major goals, so there could be serious steps toward that. In the past, there has been a laundry list of 15 goals. I am happy to see the things such as affordable housing really moving forward,” Richards said.
The Lumberyard Project is anticipated to yield 277 affordable housing units on 11 acres of land located south of Aspen Airport Business Center.
City Council goals included leveraging and amending regulations and policies in support of affordable housing. The residential building moratorium resulted in several new policies and regulations in support of affordable housing development.
“For me, the biggest accomplishments of this council were APCHA seller standards and the right-sizing pilot program,” City Council candidate Bill Guth said.
APCHA has instituted seller standards for all sales in its system. An independent formal home inspection funded by APCHA is conducted to provide transparency to the buyer about the state of the property. By signing a new deed restriction, the owner will start with an updated “purchase price” with the 10% capital improvements based on that updated value. Five homes have been put back into the APCHA system in the past year as a result of compliance actions.
Mayor candidate Tracy Sutton wasn’t impressed.
“I am disappointed to see that the best option we currently have for APCHA residents to repair or maintain their housing could be a pilot program with grants for “emergency repairs;” I think we should already be closer to a long-term solution that helps APCHA owners repair and maintain their units,” she said.
The City Council has passed nation-leading climate policy.
“While I am generally critical of this council’s performance, I am happy they are taking steps on climate. As mayor, I would certainly support continued efforts in this space,” Sutton said.
“Environmental initiatives are back on track with clear goals, a sustainability plan, and roadmap for success in reducing greenhouse-gas emission, resource consumption reductions, waste diversion, and transportation improvements,” Torre said.
Richards said she was pleased with the council’s climate efforts: “I think moving forward with the environment initiatives to deal with composting and greenhouse emissions — these are long-term items and incredibly important for our climate-change issues; our community economy depends on snow. It’s easy to overlook these issues.”
What went wrong?
Well, all the unfinished construction downtown, for one.
“As admitted by the incumbents and challengers in a recent Aspen Times article, the permitting process that led to so many empty spaces and stalled projects is something that was not prioritized. I know from previous council meetings and with talking to current members that it was discussed, but not enough was done about it, and now is the time to prioritize it to the benefit of locals and visitors alike,” said Rose.
“I was surprised to see nothing related to traffic mitigation,” Sutton said. “This is one of our most glaring issues as a community.”
“I think in the last term, the City Council goals that were missed or not prioritized are the Armory Hall conversion and the lack to action to remediate traffic flow on Highway 82,” Guth said.
“Personally, I wish we could delve more into the demographics of and the changing nature of our larger region,” Richards said. “Aspen has drawn 60% or more of its workforce from the free market outside of city limits. And that market has changed radically. Those families can’t afford El Jebel or Carbondale anymore. I don’t think our business community has fully woken up to the fact that the free market will not be providing the workforce we need in the future.”
“Another one I would point out as not being prioritized is the Entrance to Aspen,” Rose said. “It felt like we only started prioritizing it after the most recent bridge construction this past fall and because we are on a short timeline and the bridge may have weight restrictions at some point. This should have been prioritized sooner, so we never have to deal with weight restrictions, which will cause more traffic and lower quality of life.”
“The biggest disappointment for me was The Living Lab,” Doyle said. “It was our biggest blemish. We implemented it with the best of intentions to provide a safer downtown core for everyone. However, setting it up the weekend before Fourth of July was not putting our best foot forward.”
Hauenstein wasn’t ready to declare that a failure — or at least not a complete one.
“I found the Living Lab to be a success, and I know that’s controversial,” he said. “It told us what did and didn’t work and identified some communication flaws. There were failures. We hadn’t factored in reverse flow of bicycle lanes, for example, and that told us what was intolerable in the community. There’s always a silver lining of a failure.”
“Why didn’t the city purchase the Centennial deed restrictions for $10 million in 2019?” Rose asked. “Affordable housing is almost always the No. 1 issue on this community’s mind and maintaining what we currently have should be priority No. 1. The cost of those deed restrictions is clearly cheaper than what it would cost to build the Lumberyard project. I believe in more affordable housing, so potentially losing what we have and then building more seems like a poor strategy when we can hopefully maintain what we have and attain more in a sensible and logical way.”
“The biggest disappointment that I have felt in the last term is the waste reduction (compost) requirement versus the incentive; I don’t think there was a prior discussion with restaurants,” Guth said, referencing an ordinance that eventually will prohibit the landfilling of organic waste in the trash.
A complete guide of City Council goals and updates can be found at aspen.gov.
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