East Cooper housing pitch doesn’t win over HPC, will return in November
A five-unit affordable-housing development intended for families and local workers received neither the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission’s approval or denial Wednesday with the board deadlocked in a 2-2 vote.
The split-decision means the development team of Jim DeFrancia and Jean Coulter can return to the HPC on Nov. 10 with another proposal for 1020 E. Cooper Ave.
“There is no action at this point, so the application is still on the table,” assistant city attorney Kate Johnson said after the vote, which was taken near the end of a virtual meeting and attracted dozens of observers and people offering their perceived pros and cons on the project.
November’s meeting will give the project team some time “to restudy our options for this project,” said Sara Adams of the Aspen planning firm BendonAdams, which represents the applicants.
The historic mining cabin at 1020 E. Cooper is where former Aspen Times columnist Su Lum lived until her passing in January 2017 after having owned the home since 1972 when she bought it for $46,000, according to property records. In October 2019, 1020 Cooper LLC, a company controlled by DeFrancia and Coulter, acquired the property for $2.3 million.
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The property was originally developed in 1888 — just a few years before Aspen’s silver-mining heyday — and improved in 1964, giving it historic status and putting the proposal in the HPC’s purview.
The proposal included a three-unit building that would stand 10 feet behind the the old home, which would be altered to include a dormer and house two families.
Two HPC members, Roger Moyer and freshman commissioner Jodi Surfas, said they could not support the development simply due to the sheer size of a new building that would shadow a historic cabin on a lot eyed for redevelopment. At its highest, the new three-unit structure would stand 29 feet, 8.5 inches.
“It’s a huge building behind the historic asset, and I don’t think it’s conforming at all,” said Surfas.
The two also said they could not support the project because its current iteration required moving the cabin 11 feet forward and 2 feet to the east to accommodate the development.
“If we’re going to relocate, we have to have something absolutely dynamite, something absolutely fabulous for that location,” Moyer said. “We’re not getting that.”
HPC members Kara Thompson and Jeffrey Halferty voted in support of the project. Halftery said the proposal met the historic criteria the HPC judged — a matter of contention between supporters and opponents. Thompson added that the property considered for development is part of the residential multi-family district, and the project satisfied its obligations.
Project cons, levied primarily by Cooper Avenue neighbors, dominated the public comment portion of the hearing. They said they support affordable housing, but not the version pitched for their street. Some said they would be OK with a smaller project — three units and a smaller building, perhaps. Yet the the three-unit building currently proposed “dwarfed” — a word used multiple times through the night — the miner’s cabin.
As well, opponents expressed concern that an HPC approval of such a project would set in motion more land use applications with similar aspirations and to the detriment of the town’s historic character.
Advocates for the project included city planner Kevin Rayes and planning director Amy Simon, who recommended it be approved. The living spaces would have comprised three two-bedroom apartments and two three-bedroom units, combining for 4,901 square feet of livable space.
“We feel it’s a good fit for the neighborhood, and we support it,” Simon said.
They and others said the property provided the unique opportunity for a private developer to build worker housing within the city and a less-than five minute walk to downtown. That would mean fewer vehicles driven within Aspen for everyday errands and fewer motorists commuting to Aspen, they argued. And while neighbors said the project was too dense, city staff offered that the living quarters were not compromised or compressed.
“Staff believes these are very high quality units being proposed here,” Mayes said.
Likewise, project principals also referred often to the housing goals of the Aspen Area Community Plan and the current housing dilemma facing the community.
“Change can be hard, and we understand, but this is what the community has been asking for,“ Adams said.
DeFrancia also pounded on the importance of worker housing to Aspen.
“The need for affordable housing is self-evident,” he said. “It is stated in every election by every candidate. … It’s self-evident like the sun rising in the east. We need affordable housing.”
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