County commissioners wary of plan to redevelop affordable apartments
August 17, 2006
A recent deal to redevelop two of the last low-cost apartment buildings on Aspen’s east side ran into a little turbulence before local elected officials.The deal with a Minnesota partnership has the enthusiastic blessing of the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority. APCHA officials have said the project will provide new affordable housing inventory without costing local governments any money.But this week the project raised some eyebrows among the Pitkin County commissioners, who only recently learned the details of an agreement that has been in the works since January.Two commissioners expressed concerns that some of Aspen’s low-income workers might be getting the raw end of the deal.The deal, which calls for demolition and replacement of the Park Avenue Apartments and the adjacent, publicly owned Smuggler Mountain Apartments, which together occupy the northeastern corner of the intersection of Park Avenue and Park Circle.Demolition would eliminate 25 low-cost rental apartments, 14 at Park Avenue and 11 at Smuggler Mountain.Smuggler Mountain Apartments, on a 15,000-square-foot lot, are the only affordable housing enclave owned and managed solely by the APCHA. Rents there range from a little more than $300 a month to just less than $700 a month.Park Avenue, a free-market building that local investor John Werning and partners have owned since 1974, also is known as one of the lowest-cost rental opportunities in Aspen.
The project calls for construction of 15 free-market “units” of some configuration, and 22 deed-restricted affordable housing units. It also would involve building an underground parking garage beneath the entire project to take care of the city’s parking mitigation requirements, according to APCHA Director Tom McCabe.McCabe said the affordable units would be studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom, for sale as price-controlled as category 2, 3 or 4 under the guidelines in effect at the filing of the final plat for the project. At present, prices range from $79,000 for a Category 2 studio, to $266,000 for a Category 4 two-bedroom.”We go from rental to for sale, which we kind of like to do,” he said. “We like to have people buy into the community.”The deal, McCabe said, is part of a complicated arrangement “hammered out” between the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority board and the Prime Point LLC, which includes a payment of $750,000 from Prime Point to the APCHA. That money, according to McCabe, could end up helping the Smuggler Mountain tenants find interim housing while the project is under way, or to “buy down” the finished units to make them affordable for the displaced tenants.But at least one Pitkin County commissioner feels the housing board gave away too much in its bid to encourage a free-market answer to Aspen’s worsening housing crunch.”I think they’re selling their souls by giving that property to those guys for $750,000,” Patti Clapper said after a recent commissioners meeting.Her main concern, she said, was the fate of those living in the Park Avenue Apartments, whom McCabe acknowledged are not a “priority” for the housing office because Park Avenue is free-market worker housing.Werning said Prime Point has an option to buy Park Avenue, which went on the market for $6.9 million in 2004, contingent on city development approvals for the project. And, he said, the project “would add more affordable housing up there than already exists, and do it with class.”
Noting that the developer will end up with 37 units for sale, Clapper said, “He’s probably going to make about $20 million out of all this, and we’re giving him that property for $750,000?”But, she added, “I don’t know where we [Pitkin County] fit into all this.” She said the first she heard of the deal was during the Gunnison County commissioners’ recent tour of local housing projects, conducted by McCabe, who mentioned the Prime Point deal in passing.She did not know the details, she said, until McCabe appeared before the Pitkin County commissioners at a work session this week.”I was given instructions, while the board was working through this, to keep it close to my chest,” McCabe said in an interview, explaining the secrecy surrounding the talks. “The board did not want to bargain in public, because bargaining in public is usually a disadvantage to one side or another.”At the work session, Clapper and fellow Commissioner Jack Hatfield suggested keeping the county better informed of such deals in the future, even about deals where the county has little or no role in negotiations.”These are working people living there,” Clapper said of the tenants. “I just hate the thought of all those people getting thrown out.””I’m pretty sure that the proposal won’t be approved unless we take care of the tenants,” McCabe replied. He noted that the proposal will not be formally submitted to City Hall until after the current development moratorium expires, and land-use planner Stan Clauson, representing Prime Point, predicted it will take nine months to a year for the development application to go through the city’s review process.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org