Andersen: Making Basalt a river town
Basalt is a river town. Yet the rivers that join here are mostly hidden by private property, or the banks are unwelcoming weed-covered dikes underlain with concrete block and riprap.
The rivers that flow through Basalt should be beautiful places to walk, to fish, or simply to observe nature and ponder the flow. Basalt ought to live up to its name as a river town, which is exactly what the town is trying to do by redeveloping the site of the Pan & Fork trailer park.
That project, however, has created a moral predicament. The residents of this designated floodplain are being relocated to make the river park possible and to end the threat of flooding, both long overdue. However, “relocation” for these residents has become a loaded word.
On Tuesday, at a meeting of the Basalt trustees, a Latino man who said he has lived at the Pan & Fork for 17 years spoke for many of his neighbors when he challenged the fairness of the relocation.
“Take a look at how we live here,” he appealed to the trustees. “We’re not rich. This relocation is not going to help us. Our kids go to school here, and they want to stay.”
The Pan & Fork was established in the 1960s as temporary housing for workers who built Ruedi Dam. Vacating the park slipped through the cracks, and it became permanent housing — until now. The town is offering reasonable relocation funds to residents, but that housing will not be replaced in full. The Pan & Fork community will most likely be dispersed.
The river park plan is good for Basalt, and judging by last week’s meeting and the passing of key resolutions, Basalt will have its riverfront amenity. Still, the moral issue remains: Can displaced residents be accommodated if the town removes them responsibly from the floodplain and enhances Basalt with a much-needed river feature? There are no easy answers.
Historically, most river towns have been built on the banks of navigable watercourses or at major confluences. Basalt was built at the junction of two railroads, both of which followed the rivers. It wasn’t the rivers that first attracted town builders it was railroad commerce.
Basalt was built where the Rio Grande Western and the Colorado Midland merged in the valley of the Roaring Fork. The trains came up the valley from Glenwood Springs. The Midland came through Hagerman Tunnel and down the Fryingpan.
They met at the Roaring Fork, where competing teams of railroad builders vied to get their tracks to Aspen first. These crews set rails on either side of the river and pushed harder as they witnessed the progress of the opposing crews. The Rio Grande Western won the race by two months, entering Aspen in December 1887, followed by the Midland in January 1888.
The rails are long gone, but the rivers still flow through Basalt, and the town plans to capitalize on a long-standing opportunity. The proposed relocation of Pan & Fork residents appears to be the only stumbling block, and it will be to the credit of the town if that matter can be handled diplomatically.
The Pan & Fork is more than a trailer park. It is an ethnic enclave that lends diversity to Basalt and provides homes for a needed work force in the valley. Considering that part of town’s larger planning concept includes razing and hopefully relocating Taqueria El Nopal, a popular Hispanic restaurant, for redevelopment as the proposed headquarters for The Rocky Mountain Institute, a large part of Basalt’s ethnic presence could fade from the town’s social fabric.
This isn’t the town’s intention, but perceptions are subjective, especially if you’re on the relocation end of it. That’s why the relocation is a loaded issue, one that will determine the town’s future demographic and ethnic mix. This challenge warrants serious consideration and creativity.
A river park will be a positive outcome, but only if the benefits it provides come with harmony and fairness, and not at the cost of community diversity and negative perceptions. The moral question cannot be dismissed.
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Aspen City Hall reporter Carolyn Sackariason reflects on the same old story, different year, different decade.