Andersen: A new, improved Basalt?
August 11, 2013
Alarm bells ring when I hear the term "mega-project," especially when it's affixed to the place I call home.
In a recent article The Aspen Times quoted Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon as saying that a potential "mega-project" could define Basalt for years to come. The town is looking for the "right developer" to amass key land parcels and sculpt a new and vibrant townscape.
This is a hot topic because downtown Basalt is said to be teetering on the edge of the Detroit Syndrome. Or at least that's the fear of vocal business owners who are chagrined that many downtown businesses have fled to Willits — a past "mega-project" approved by the town.
Willits is said to have siphoned off downtown Basalt's lifeblood, prompting the town to compete with itself by endorsing another "mega-project." This feels like a desperate measure for a town that prides itself on low growth, a homey, quiet atmosphere and an eclectic social milieu.
When a "mega-project" is seen as salvation, it's smart to look at past projects and weigh their benefits. Was River Walk a salvation to downtown or did it merely jack up the ante for doing business here? Was Willits a salvation? Not if you own a downtown business that has lost customers.
"Mega-projects" often translate into a developer putting an ego-overlay on top of something that once had individual character. Does Basalt really need a "mega-project" to keep it from spiraling into insolvency?
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Whenever I pass through Basalt's Midland Avenue on a summer day, there is hardly a parking space open. Live music is playing from at least one venue, the farmers market is buzzing with activity on Sundays, and bicycles crowd the lunchtime sidewalks as a destination ride from Aspen.
The town deserves credit for creating an attractive and welcoming ambience in the center of the historic district, but compared to the exurban buzz at Willits, downtown Basalt is mellow and laid back. I appreciate these attributes as an offset to commercial overload, but evidently that's not a feeling shared by many downtown business people.
For some there will never be enough enterprise in Basalt to satisfy expectations. Realtors who seek maximum listings of high-end properties will always push for more. Their perception of a failed downtown is projected onto business owners to cultivate a sympathetic mood and join the push for more development.
A missing part of the equation is a definition of "the good life" as a balance to economic aspirations. Basalt, which has long held off the allure of material excess, now seems poised to court a "mega-project" of dubious ends. Where does quality of life fit into this approach?
When a single developer — like what happened at Willits — gets its hands on a large chunk of real estate, organic growth succumbs to a single-vision imprint. Developers conform large tracts of property to a particular taste that rarely has context with the community and is often a contradiction.
Willits sprang up into a big-box cluster that is utilitarian and commercially efficient. However, watching one of those boxes rise from the excavation rubble is like watching an unimaginative child with an erector set. Another box.
If and when a "mega-project" is finally done — following years of noisy, traffic-heavy construction — the results are predictable: stylistic uniformity bereft of the "messy vitality" derived from spontaneous and diversified development. This type of growth swells on the host like a tumor.
Basalt should shun formulaic, one-vision growth in favor of the kind of diversity that defines this community. Meanwhile, town leaders should do whatever they can, including tax breaks, to support existing downtown businesses without compromising community values. Downtown business owners ought to accept reasonable material expectations and recognize values other than inflated economic metrics.
Where does a "mega-project" fit into old town Basalt? It doesn't. Places that embrace mega-anything devalue their heritage and surrender their individuality to commercial expediency. Something may be gained, but what's lost is an irreplaceable feeling, the stuff of nostalgia and yearning for how lovely and personal it used to be.
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