Entrance to Aspen overhaul causing outcry even after outreach

A flyer left on a door in the West End by the city of Aspen in its attempt to inform people of the Castle Creek Bridge project.
Carolyn Sackariason/The Aspen Times

As the Castle Creek Bridge project is set to begin next week and make summer travel challenging in and out of Aspen, residents and business owners are emerging from winter wondering what the city of Aspen is up to.

The $4.65 million project, which starts April 2 and runs in phases into the fall, will make it an even greater test of patience to navigate the entrance (and exit) to Aspen.

Despite numerous city-hosted meetings and open houses, mailers, local advertising and social media campaigns, a number of residents and retailers in the area remain surprised at the scope of the project.

“People don’t tune in until they have to,” said Peter Rice, the city’s senior project manager. “It’s a struggle.”

In order to improve the Hallam Street corridor with a wider sidewalk over the bridge and build better bus shelters with safer crosswalks at Seventh and Eighth streets, construction crews need to rip up the roadway for about four months between now and October.

Crews will start April 2 and go until June 11. Then they’ll stop during the height of the summer season and go back to work Aug. 13 until sometime in October.

That plan doesn’t work for downtown retailer David Fleisher, who owns Pitkin County Dry Goods. He said when work was done on the bridge last year his 49-year-old business was down 40 percent for the three days the project occurred compared with the same days the previous year.

As the longest owner-operated business in town, Fleisher said he expected the city to contact him prior to setting the plans to get his input. Had city officials talked to him instead of just dropping off information, he would have told them August and September are busy months and suggested they push the project further into the fall.

“If they had come to us in the beginning we could have probably worked it out, instead of surprising us,” he said. “We may not have had existential hurricanes, fires, or mudslides in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, (but) we do have to battle the city of Aspen’s hypocritical intentions to support local businesses. I’m sure there is a way to phase the projects.”

Rice said the city visited Fleisher’s Cooper Avenue store and left informational material on the project, but did not talk to him directly.

Rice said it’s inefficient to go to every business owner to discuss projects in detail, but perhaps outreach can be tweaked in the future.

“Maybe we need to improve our outreach with certain businesses,” he said. “If feels he wasn’t heard, then we need to do a better job.”

Rice said he and the team are looking at how to push the project back a bit in August. He noted that the Aspen Music Festival does not end until Aug. 20, but currently the plan is to start the final construction phase Aug. 13.

“I’m still trying to work on that,” he said. “I just can’t promise it now.”

Rice added it is difficult for construction crews to work into November because of weather and it gets dark earlier.

For the duration of the project, the highly used bus stops at Eighth Street will move to Fourth Street, and traffic will be diverted through the West End neighborhood.

That was a surprise to many residents interviewed last week, despite that city officials have held seven public hearings about the project, sent mailers to property owners in the area and beyond, hosted open houses, paid for newspaper and radio ads in English and Spanish, distributed fliers, put banners on the bridge, had in-person meetings; and engaged via social media and digital platforms — among other efforts.

In a door-to-door survey by The Aspen Times, most residents who were contacted along the detour route — which includes Fifth, Sixth and Hallam streets — did not know that inbound and outbound traffic would be coming past their properties.

Elizabeth Fergus said she is aware of the project but didn’t know westbound traffic from Main Street would be coming down Fifth Street.

“I didn’t expect the city to contact me,” she said, adding the government hasn’t in the past when work is done in her neighborhood. “I guess (traffic) has to come one way or the other.”

Her neighbors across the street, who wished to remain anonymous, said they knew about the project but had no idea about traffic being diverted past them.

“I had no clue,” said the man. “It’s going to be crazy … for progress you have to do certain things. But they should be informing people.”

Rice said 550 flyers were delivered to residents who live on Third through Eighth streets between Hopkins Avenue and the music tent.

“I’m surprised that they didn’t know about it,” he said, adding city rules say staffers can’t knock on doors due to privacy concerns. “It’s hard for me to know what to say about that.”

A couple who lives on Sixth Street, where inbound traffic will run, said they remember seeing a flyer on their door that directed them to the project’s website, but hadn’t looked at it. They said they are bummed out, but not upset.

“It’s like ‘what the hell?’ But it’s got to be done so what are you going to do?” the resident said.

Bill Schaffer, who represents one of the condo complexes off Bleeker and Seventh streets, has been working with the city for two years on the project. He said he’s been satisfied with the city’s outreach, although not the plan for the temporary bus stops.

“The project is going to be awful,” he said, “but it’s the best we are going to get.”

The Hickory House restaurant is located at ground zero when it comes to this project. Manager David Chan said the city has made them aware of the project and directed them to the website. He said they have no choice but to deal with it.

“Absolutely it’s going to affect our business,” Chan said. “We are worried, but we don’t know what to do. I hope everything works out for everyone.”

Rice said despite having a public relations firm on the project team and all of the outreach that’s been conducted, attendance at the open houses held in recent weeks has been dismal. He said he wishes he knew how to engage the public earlier in the process.

“We will change things based on people’s opinions,” he said. “It’s baffling to me.”