Carolyn Sackariason: The city beat — Been there, done that
I’ve been covering the city of Aspen off and on for nearly three decades, and it’s true when people say the more things change the more they stay the same.
It’s like I’ve been living in a perpetual Groundhog’s Day covering circular conversations in the basement of City Hall since 1995.
The affordable housing crisis. The clogged Entrance to Aspen. The workforce shortage. The gentrification of neighborhoods. Billionaires replacing millionaires. Empty homes. Construction. The lack of affordable child care. The lack of anything affordable. The lack of locally serving businesses. The closing of the Red Onion. The Isis movie theater needs saving.
The list of issues facing the city goes on and on and will probably continue that way for eternity but certainly long after my retirement.
While the big picture problems persist due to their complexity and politics, there are others that elected officials over the years have not been able to solve, for whatever reason. Perhaps, analysis paralysis.
Take Galena Plaza for instance. I bet I have covered 50 meetings held by various Aspen City Councils in the past 20 years about what the patch of grass between the library and the jail should look like.
Going way back to the late 1990s and into the mid-2000s, bureaucrats bantered back and forth about the so-called Civic Master Plan and the ZG Master Plan, which were designed to be the grand vision for a government campus.
But alas, after years of analysis, the plan was scrapped and each entity built their own building, with the new City Hall being the latest one.
There was a plan on the books for Galena Plaza as it relates to the new city office building that involved modest amenities like benches, trees and a small area for outdoor performances.
Then a group of citizens came forward and wanted more out of the space, which they said should serve as a connection to the Rio Grande Park area and downtown.
And now elected officials have hit the pause button, again. It will remain an empty space until city officials can assess how people are using it.
As it sits today, it’s a sad little parcel with patches of brown grass next to sprinklers that water the sidewalk.
Whatever happens, hopefully we don’t go down the path of talking about where the cop cars should be parked again. That decades-old conversation is exhausted(ing).
After dozens of debates over dozens of years about where and how excess money in the Wheeler Opera House fund is spent, it’s up for grabs again.
The current council has met several times in recent months about how to repurpose a portion of the real estate transfer tax that voters dedicated to the Wheeler back in 1979.
This council has gotten further in the conversation than any of the others have, and could be ready to put a question to voters next year.
That momentum is largely due to the fact that the current city administration, led by City Manager Sara Ott, is more organized and laser focused on getting stuff done than previous ones.
For the past 15 years, dozens of elected officials and citizen volunteers have unsuccessfully tried to crack the long-debated problem of aging deed-restricted properties and homeowner associations’ depleted capital reserve funds in the affordable housing program.
I remember when the housing frontiers group was formed over a decade ago to tackle this very issue but nothing came of it. Too complicated, too expensive and too political.
The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board is at least making a real run at part of the problem, which is owners leaving the properties in disrepair when they sell.
They are unmotivated to make big capital improvements given that the appreciation on their properties is capped, so the APCHA board is making sellers get their homes inspected and fix whatever is necessary for life safety and livability.
There’s more to come on that, but once again, it’s got momentum and that’s due to a city administration that is in high gear with assistant city manager Diane Foster driving the train.
It appears that a new and fresh perspective coming from the second floor of City Hall may be just what this city needs to jump the hurdles of the past and get on with it.
I just hope that I can tell the rest of the story while I’m bellied up at the Red Onion bar before I hit the movies at the Isis. Those are two institutions that must be part of Aspen’s past, present and future. If we can’t make sure that happens, we’ve lost our mojo.
What am I going to do? I’m going to learn a lot about you, us, myself. I’m going to learn about our grit, our character, our very souls as only such tests can reach.
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