Hard Snyder lessons applied at Stillwater
Lee Novak had surprisingly little work to do when he walked out of the county commissioners’ chambers last week.
Novak, a planner for the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, had just unveiled the plans for a public housing complex to be built on county-owned land a mile east of downtown Aspen, called Stillwater Ranch.
Despite the opposition of two wealthy neighbors and a few concerns raised by the homeowners association in the nearby Mountain Valley subdivision, the project received unanimous support from the commissioners.
Novak told the commissioners that the lessons of the controversial Snyder affordable housing project, which was plagued with cost overruns and prompted the Aspen City Council to reconsider its commitment to housing, weighed heavily on the housing office as it began work on Stillwater.
“The Snyder [affordable housing] project was expensive, partly because of the grading work. Our idea at Stillwater is to fit the buildings to the site – it’s more beautiful and more affordable,” Novak told the commissioners.
After starting with a goal of building 24 units, architect Steve Novy ended up designing a seven-building complex to house 17 condominiums. Most are three-bedroom units that will be sold to families who qualify for affordable housing, but four are one-bedroom homes aimed at singles and young couples.
“It’s nice to have some single people living in the neighborhood – they make great babysitters,” Novak said, adding that they also bring some diversity.
The two-story buildings were designed within the 20-foot height limit set by Fritz and Fabi Benedict when they donated the four-acre parcel to the county. They will wrap around a one-way road that loops from Stillwater Drive.
The plan currently calls for on-street parking, with the units separated from the street and cars by a tree-lined sidewalk. Novak said the idea behind on-street parking was to create a more traditional feel to the neighborhood that avoids some of the most criticized, isolating aspects of suburban lifestyles.
But neither Commissioner Shellie Roy Harper nor Patti Clapper liked the idea of on-street parking, and they convinced Leslie Lamont to join them in requiring the housing office to build garages to go with at least some of the units.
As for building design, Novy said he tried to keep things as flexible as possible with the barnhouse-style buildings. “They’re basically two-story boxes with porches added on,” he said.
The design may allow for modular construction, but even if the buildings can’t be constructed off-site, Novy and Novak reckon there are enough similarities between the buildings that economies of scale can be found elsewhere in construction.
“We’ve tried to design the project so we have every option available when we actually get to the point of building it,” Novak said.
Novy also incorporated much of the advice from a consultant from Rocky Mountain Institute, a local environmental think tank. The buildings will be made of natural materials that keep the units warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And the window placement is meant to fill the units with natural light during the day.
Without basements to dig, the project will only require a limited amount of grading. That, combined with a one-lane road and careful building placement, will go a long way toward preserving the area environment, said landscape consultant Julia Marshall. Several large trees and many of the older aspen groves will survive construction if all goes as planned.
“By keeping the vegetation along the river, it really hides the project from the highway,” she said. Marshall also pointed out that the roof lines are “broken up” by the trees.
Exterior lighting has been limited to protect the nighttime views of residents in the Knollwood and Mountain Valley subdivisions. Novak also pointed out that Stillwater is close to town and its residents will have easy access to the bus system.
Before they see the application again on July 12, the commissioners asked Novak to eliminate or reduce on-street parking and look into a design that doesn’t include fire sprinklers and, if possible, add a foot between floors and ceilings in the units and a little more storage space.
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