Time to decide. From here on out, our path is set | AspenTimes.com

Time to decide. From here on out, our path is set

Aspen Times Editorial

Affordable housing is Aspen’s blessing and its curse.

The city has been struggling for years, valiantly and energetically, to figure out ways to find, build and otherwise arrange housing for its besieged working class.

This effort has been noticed and emulated by other governments facing similar problems, and lauded by those members of the working class whom it has benefited.

The program has had its detractors, to be sure, but in general it has been perceived as an example of government doing its best for its citizens.

Now, though, Aspen is coming to a crucial moment in its existence, a moment when the next few steps along one or another path will radically alter the town’s atmosphere, its ambiance, in ways that none can now foresee.

And this crucial moment is all about affordable housing and traffic congestion.

As plans move ahead for housing projects outside town – Truscott Place, Burlingame, the base of Buttermilk, North 40, and perhaps more – there necessarily have also been plans for dealing with the expected jump in traffic on Highway 82 that these projects will entail. Because no matter how many buses we run or how many “automobile disincentives” we build into the projects, there will be cars in the parking lots at each and everyone of them.

And, in response to the growing traffic, there will be more stoplights on Highway 82, a slowing and thickening of the flow of traffic, and the nature of the approach to the historic city limits will change forever.

This is the “dark side” of the affordable-housing equation, the reality of the concern expressed by some critics that affordable housing may be desirable for many reasons, but it is, after all, growth – and it will bring the inevitable impacts that growth always brings.

Of course, some of these critics would curtail the program to stifle the growth, and that is certainly not being advocated here. The affordable-housing program is as critical to this town’s social well-being as any other single factor, and must not be cut back.

That said, it is true that affordable housing is growth. This is simple common sense. You build more houses, you get more people, that’s growth. It’s growth that we need, cannot do without, but growth nonetheless.

So the next question is, how do we guide this growth to minimize its impacts? A major part of this question must be, where do we want this growth to occur?

Do we want the city to grow by two or three miles to the west? Do we want to include the Aspen Airport Business Center, indeed, the airport itself, within what we concede to the “the city?” If so, we need simply continue down the path that our city planners have put us on, because that is where we are headed. With Truscott Place and Burlingame, and the accompanying traffic signals along the highway, we are likely to see increased urban-style development between here and the AABC – in short, the expansion of the city.

The much-touted “Entrance to Aspen” will suddenly become the Shale Bluffs, after which there will be intense development and a string of traffic lights all the way into the center of the city.

But what if we were to decide against allowing the city limits to stretch out to the AABC, and to get truly aggressive about building affordable housing in town? What if we were to decide that in order to keep the areas immediately outside the city limits from becoming suburbanized, we need to build a lot of housing, an entire new neighborhood, within town?

It can be done – though the trade-off would be a loss of open space – of parks – within the city limits. In essence, we would have to trade open space within the city for the open space we are about to build on at the edge of the city.

It all depends on what we want to do with our town, how we want it to look in 50 years. If we don’t mind watching the city limits jump westward, with the traffic lights, urban density and expansion of a true “citified” feel, then we should just keep going.

But if that is more than we can bear, then now is the time to stop, look around, and analyze the next steps were are about to take, as we create substantial new housing developments far enough outside the center of town to encourage driving, but close enough to town to ensure that the city will stretch out to join them.

Because if we want to change our minds, this is our last chance. From here on out, our path is set.

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