Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
September 5, 2012
I have long been (no surprise to anyone here) a strong supporter of growth control, going back to the 1970s, when I worked to get Stacy Standley elected mayor of Aspen.Our platform spoke of “vision” – but in our hearts the slogan was “Stop the greedheads!”I haven’t changed – but I can’t help looking around sometimes and wishing there could have been a better way.And so last week I found myself wistfully wishing (hat tip to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “Helplessly hoping her harlequin hovers nearby … “) when I considered the City Council’s move toward barring free-market residential development downtown.Don’t get me wrong. I realize that without some kind of extreme action, downtown Aspen is at risk of turning into a wasteland of glass and steel. (Hat tip to T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.”)Human nature being what it is, the equation “Greed + Opportunity = Wasteland” seems as immutable as anything Mr. Einstein came up with. But you can’t blame a guy for wishing things could be different.Sadly, both sides in this struggle are too heavy-handed, too flat-footed. On one hand, we have those who declare property rights are paramount and the free market will cure all ills and react appropriately to ensure the best result in the long run.But when it comes to development, bad choices are not easily corrected.Like a ham-fisted plastic surgeon, developers make mistakes that become permanent scars. (Hat tip to Michael Jackson.)Some of today’s worst buildings in downtown Aspen were built in lustful, greedy haste.And it’s not just a modern phenomenon. Certainly, the fair face of the original Aspen of the 1880s was pockmarked by careless, shoddy buildings. The mining- days heritage we have left downtown is impressive – and all it took to clear the rubbish away was a financial collapse and a half-century of neglect.That is not a free-market solution to today’s pockmarks that we should devoutly desire.But, on the other damn hand, government is also not exactly suited for delicate maneuvering.Its fists are just as hammy, its feet just as flat. (I’d say the government has two left feet – but I got a mighty snippy email from Mayor Mick Ireland last week after I jokingly referred to him on the radio as Aspen’s “socialist, communist mayor” and I don’t want to get in trouble again with a “lefty” reference. Even if it’s only “left feet.”)When government control cuts off supply, escalating demand creates endless opportunities for greed to run wild. When government says it’s considering a height limit, building applications soar skyward to beat the deadline.Think “mongoose vs. cobra” here. Sure, neither mongoose nor cobra is flat-footed or slow; they’re both lightning fast. But still, they lock in mortal combat, thrust and parry, feint and counter-feint. And they’re both deadly. Sometimes one wins. Sometimes the other. And you wouldn’t want either of them in your pants.But right now we do indeed have a pantload of heavy-handed, flat-footed mongooses and cobras. Calm down in there!We know that unfettered development will not result in a better town. We also know that no amount of government regulation will ever take us back to the days when Aspen was a quirky Mecca of messy vitality. (Hat tip to … oh, never mind.) Someone recently suggested to me that Aspen is changing into Gstaad.Gstaad, for those of you who don’t keep up on this kind of thing, is a small, historic, deeply charming, painfully expensive Swiss ski resort. It’s known for its music festival, its economic conference, its rich celebrity residents (Roger Moore, George Soros, Elizabeth Taylor, Roman Polanski, Prince Ranier and Grace Kelly) and visitors (Michael Jackson [him again!], Prince Charles and Princess Diana, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Margaret Thatcher, Peter Sellers, Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia), its luxe shops and its sky-high prices.Says one Swiss tourism website: “Gstaad is in fact just a one-street village, a rather charming, attractively located place full of restored weathered-wood chalets – even if there is an overabundance of jewelry shops and furriers. Nonetheless, its high-roller status makes it a village like no other. If you fancy being snubbed by the world’s richest people, come here for Christmas week, scene of a heady round of sparkling soires and lavish banquet-style dinner parties all but barred to ordinary mortals.”Sound familiar?And Gstaad is also apparently embroiled in the usual battles over development.I came across a piece on Gstaad by the high-society columnist who goes by the name of Taki, writing in “Gstaad Life” magazine.He wrote, “Progress, of course, cannot be stopped and shouldn’t be, but keeping the character of the village should be uppermost in our minds. … Unfortunately progress is no longer associated with moving forward, but with enlargement and growth.” “Big is bad,” Taki concluded, “and small is not only beautiful, it’s also beneficial to all of us.”Of course, among the online comments, along with those that shouted, “Hear, hear!” and “Bravo, Taki!” was this: “Taki, can you please, please write about something else … can’t hear the same old story any more, your boring crying over ‘the pitiful destiny of Gstaad.'”Again: Sound familiar?So perhaps that’s where we’re heading, and perhaps nothing can stand in the way.But I can’t go this far and just throw up my hands. We have to place our bets somewhere.So I’ll place mine with these words from Taki (who would probably loathe the idea of being quoted by the likes of me), “Other resorts have been vulgarized by large modern buildings which attract the wrong kind of guests. … I spent one night in a French popular ski resort and it was hell, a honky-tonk, shopping mall sprawl full of drunken Russians and their fur-clad girlfriends.”That vision of hell, my friends, is pure free-market.Time to take sides.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.