Mullins mulls her eight years of service to Aspen residents
Tenured Aspen City Councilwoman reflects on her time in office as she is poised to step down Tuesday
After eight years of serving on Aspen City Council, Councilwoman Ann Mullins is stepping down Tuesday.
From her studio office behind her home on Hyman Avenue, where she has sat for hundreds of hours on virtual meetings in the past year, Mullins reflected last week on her two terms, with the accomplishments, disappointments and unfinished work.
Her seat, which she has to give up due to term limits, will be taken over by John Doyle, who garnered the most votes in the March municipal election, along with incumbent Ward Hauenstein.
Not only did Mullins give herself credit for initiating and supporting dozens of policy changes and public programs in the past eight years, so have others.
In recent months, Mullins has been the recipient of two awards for her work in historic preservation and on water efficiency policies.
She received the coveted Elizabeth Paepcke Award during council’s May 25 meeting, which recognizes longtime preservation leaders who demonstrate a commitment to historic preservation that has had a clear impact on Aspen.
That has been through her work on the state level, as well as serving seven years on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, protecting mid-century-era resources in Aspen.
Mullins also conducts historic walking tours on the Aspen Institute campus.
Mayor Torre, who she challenged in the 2019 election in what was a contentious campaign between them, thanked Mullins for her dedication to preservation.
“I want to give a special thanks that because of your passion, your experience, your knowledge, you’ve really helped bring preservation forward in our community more than it would have,” he said. “It is a program that is very near and dear to a lot of our hearts that is truly the soul and character of Aspen.”
As a member of the Ruedi Water and Power board, along with being a supporter of water efficiency measures as a councilwoman, Mullins in March received a leadership award by WaterNow Alliance, an organization that connects local leaders interested in sustainable water strategies.
Over the past eight years, Mullins has been passionate about water issues she has worked on and championed, including supporting the city’s storm water management program and securing more funding for it; promoting the river management plan; initiating and advocating for the approval of the landscape efficiency ordinance; and being behind Aspen utility’s integrated resource plan, which established a 50-year community water roadmap, as well as secure a storage site to retain Aspen’s conditional water rights.
The good, bad and ugly of local politics
That last initiative was one of the more controversial ones that Mullins dealt with as a member of council.
It became a yearslong, protracted legal battle between the city and nonprofit organizations and area residents who were challenging the municipal government’s desire to extend conditional water rights with the state.
A 2012 article by Aspen Journalism revealed that the city was maintaining its right to build dams over 150 feet tall and reservoirs in the upper ends of both Castle and Maroon creek valleys, in protected wilderness areas.
The plan with the state was that the infrastructure would be built if global warming drastically impacted the municipal water supply system.
Because of that press coverage and legal challenges by those who live along the creeks, the city found alternative storage sites, including the purchase of a gravel pit in Woody Creek.
When Mullins entered office in 2013, the issue was just starting to percolate.
“The good part of that was it certainly got the city’s attention and we were determined to find a good solution,” she said. “The bad part was that they demanded that we do it really quickly and that kind of hampered our efforts. … We reassessed the needs and reduced the acre-feet of water that we would actually need going into the future … and then we got really aggressive with our water conservation program.”
Another challenging time while serving in office was the abrupt forced resignation of longtime City Manager Steve Barwick and his right hand man, then-Assistant City Manager Barry Crook.
“That was rough, the change in administration, because it was a brand new council that was not really cohesive,” she said. “I adamantly objected to the way it was done, it was extremely messy.”
Mullins has served on four different councils, as new office holders are elected every two years, so she has worked with several individuals, including two mayors.
And while she said the current council is siloed from each other more than others she has served on, it unified on its response to COVID-19, with a $6 million recovery package for local businesses, arts and cultural organizations and residents, among other initiatives.
“Of the eight years on council, I am most proud of what council accomplished as a body, with consensus, moving forward together cooperatively with the community, with staff, with the county and really got important stuff done,” Mullins said. “It’s certainly a difficult and tragic time but it’s also one of the most rewarding times on council, feeling that we could get something done for the community and keep it healthy and safe.”
Mullins, along with then-Councilman Adam Frisch, initiated raising the age to buy cigarettes in Aspen from 18 to 21 years old.
A few years later, Mullins supported banning the sale of all flavored nicotine products, which are popular with youth.
The built environment
From a physical landscape perspective, Mullins supported downzoning in the land-use code, limiting building heights to 28 feet and requiring developers to provide more mitigation for the impacts they create, such as employee housing.
She’s been an ardent supporter of some controversial and large developments as well, including the new 37,500-square-foot City Hall that stands over 40 feet tall.
It was built to consolidate city offices all over town, creating a more efficient and cost effective municipal center for the public and employees.
Mullins also supported the voter-approved Lift One plan that will see more than 300,000 square feet of commercial space at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side, as well as a $4.36 million investment by the city.
“I always thought the city should take charge on what goes on over there,” she said. “To turn your back and say, ‘I don’t want any development’ is an unrealistic way to look at it because something was going to happen. … It is the last good place for lodging, it’s going to improve the (1A chairlift). … We ended up with the Dolinsek property, which will make a beautiful city park up there. … I think it just completes that side of town.”
She said she was unfazed by the criticism she received for supporting those projects, as well as others, and stood by her convictions regardless.
“It’s interesting because people say, ‘Wow I don’t know how you take all the heat,’ but it’s the same people who over and over are criticizing,” Mullins said. “Most of the people I talk to it’s gratitude.”
Other public projects Mullins supported and is proud of include the new police station, an overhauled Castle Creek Bridge and corridor leading into town, the renovation of Rubey Park transit hub and the completion of the John Denver Sanctuary at Rio Grande Park.
Pushing and pulling for the public good
Hundreds of units of deed-restricted housing have come online or are in the works under Mullins’ tenure, and so have other public-benefiting programs like the WE-Cycle bike-sharing program and a fleet of electric buses for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, of which she has served as a city representative on the board.
In that role, she traveled to Washington, D.C., multiple times to secure grants for the transit agency.
Mullins also put her support behind the city’s “complete streets” programs, which created safer thoroughfares for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians in Aspen.
Mullins voted against an ordinance that would’ve allowed four stories for new lodges, as well as a multimillion, multi-modal transit experiment that was championed by former Mayor Steve Skadron.
Multi-level basements, which became a trend for homeowners looking to maximize their square footage, were banned under Mullins’ tenure.
She took on that issue and council passed an ordinance that doesn’t allow any development below 15 feet, after a citizen complained to her about construction noise and the amount of activity on a nearby site.
“I got some pushback, like, ‘You know we have too many ordinances, what’s the big deal once it’s built, nobody sees it?’” Mullins said. “I did a little research to convince people to tell them about the amount of energy that’s used to service these five levels of basement.”
Disappointments and work still left to do
Mullins said she wishes that the city hadn’t cowered to neighbors opposing the activation of the Old Power House off North Mill Street when it was proposed to be a community center, with a brewery and television studio.
She also said she had hoped to be part of an administration that took on restrictions for residential development, to slow the growth and size of luxury homes.
The armory, which serves as the current City Hall, should have been designated for full community use, Mullins said, and she is disappointed that that didn’t get done while she was in office.
Taking on the redevelopment of the pedestrian malls to replace the infrastructure below, while also holding developers accountable for paying for utility upgrades and ADA compliant surfaces, was too big of a task for council during Mullins’ time.
“It was not seeing the forest through the trees, not seeing the big idea that if you do this plan then in the end, it will be beneficial for you in the long run,” she said.
After years of discussion, council also has not reached a consensus on how to develop Galena Plaza, which is connected to the new City Hall and serves as a connector to Rio Grande Park and the river corridor.
A yearslong legal battle with homeowners at Centennial, a deed-restricted condo complex, over construction defects and what the city’s responsibility is remains unresolved, which is something Mullins said she had hoped to resolve while in office.
So was reactivating the alleys in the downtown core for public use, along with fostering an economy around uphill recreating, an initiative that began with Skadron.
There’s a lot more work to be done, and many more accomplishments than disappointments, Mullins said.
At the end of the day, the job is putting together the puzzle to connect people and to what they need.
“My philosophy on being a legislator is creating a good place for people to live, but how you do it is what gets really complicated,” she said. “What did I hope to accomplish? Just make a better place for people to live.”
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