Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
Aspen, CO, Colorado
I love good ideas, but there’s a problem with good ideas: Sometimes they go bad.
And when good ideas go bad, we tend to get a little flummoxed. (Was using the word “flummoxed” a good idea? Has it gone bad already? See what I mean?)
When a good idea goes bad, some people want to get rid of it immediately, as if it’s left-over, month-old sushi forgotten in the back of the refrigerator. (And maybe they never really liked the idea in the first place. Raw fish? Yuck!)
Others – blinded by nostalgia or, perhaps, ideology – want to cling to that idea. (That yellowtail roll was delicious back in August! Raw fish is good for you!)
And so, like flummoxed oxen, we stagger around, churning everything into mud and sinking into the mire.
Which brings us – of course! – to local photographer Ross Kribbs and the bureaucratic hassles he’s having with his art gallery in a downtown hallway.
Let’s be clear: The “good idea gone bad” here is not Kribbs’ Nugget Gallery.
The gallery, I do believe, is just a plain good idea. Period. It’s a 300-square-foot shoestring operation that sells the work of local artists.
It was created a couple of years ago, as Kribbs wrote in a letter to the editor, in “a previously neglected hallway in a office building downtown, reimagined and repainted by volunteers during an economic recession that left many neighboring storefronts empty.”
It was done, he added, “(w)ith a little track lighting, a dash of creativity and a lot of sweat equity.”
And by the way, the gallery is open only evenings because during the day the hallway is used as, you know, a hallway – and there’s no room to run a gallery.
So far, so good; but after allowing him to operate for two years on a temporary business permit, the city now has decided that the gallery will be shut down in July – and here’s where we get to the good idea gone bad.
This tiny, part-time makeshift gallery cannot get a permanent business license unless it pays an “affordable-housing mitigation fee.”
That fee springs from the city’s affordable-housing program (a good idea, which I have long supported and continue to support, almost without reservation).
Under the rules, new development must provide affordable housing for 60 percent of the employees it generates, calculated at a rate of roughly four employees for every 1,000 square feet of development.
Since hallways are not part of a project’s employee-generating footprint, no fee was ever paid for Kribbs’ space. So, to get a permit, he will have to pay for housing something like three-quarters of an employee.
And the cost of that housing fee? About $100,000.
That is clearly impossible for an operation like the Nugget Gallery. If it sold T-shirts or fur coats or real estate or shots of whiskey, maybe the economics would work. Although evenings-only in 300 square feet might make it a tough nut for anyone to crack.
So what do we do?
The city’s answer is obvious: Shut it down!
That has the virtue of being clear cut and simple.
It also is destructive and wrongheaded – like throwing out the entire refrigerator because there’s some month-old raw tuna in there.
The city seems to be claiming it just can’t, for the life of it, figure out how to make it work. Rules, after all, are rules. It’s the “everyone else” problem: Letting him slide just wouldn’t be fair to “everyone else.” And if we let him off the hook, “everyone else” will want to open a business in a hallway.
Now I’m not in the business of proposing legislation – irresponsible cheap shots are my stock in trade – but it would seem that perhaps an exemption could be carved out based on a business’s yearly revenues. If Kribbs is hauling in a million bucks a year out of his 300 square feet, then, hell yes, make him pay that housing fee. If he’s pulling in what seems more likely for that tiny, part-time hallway business, then give the guy a break.
But let’s back away from specifics for a moment.
I started by talking about good ideas gone bad.
And really, it’s not that affordable housing has “gone bad.” I do not want to get lumped in with those who screech that affordable housing is job-killing, wage-crushing class warfare. Frankly, I think it’s roughly the opposite of all that. It’s life-saving, sprit-saving, community-saving.
It doesn’t need to be thrown out like bad sushi. But it also doesn’t need to be preserved untouched like a Van Gogh painting.
It just needs a little intelligent fixing up. Which is, of course, not necessarily a government specialty but certainly not impossible.
And having said that, let me range even a little more widely.
I am certainly not, by any means, an anti-government guy. I have been – as I often proudly proclaim – characterized as a “museum-quality liberal” by one of my more hidebound conservative friends.
I think there are many problems for which government really is the solution.
But even for those problems, the government solution is too often like brain surgery blindfolded. In boxing gloves. With an ax.
Sadly, the reflexively anti-government crowd just makes things worse with its constant assaults.
Add that into the mix, and suddenly our blindfolded, boxing-gloved, axe-wielding brain surgeon is operating under heavy shelling, in the dark, after someone has cut the power.
Sometimes, improbably as it may seem, we get good results.
A lot of wonderful, valuable people are able to live in Aspen because of the affordable-
housing program. And a lot of the criticism of that program is motivated by nothing more than greed, ideology and (pardon the expression, but you guys started it) class warfare from above.
But other times, the “little guy” (like Ross Kribbs) gets caught in the middle and crushed, as the government, under siege, circles the tanks to battle for a good idea gone just a little bit bad.
Forget about rotten sushi. Just trim that bit of mold off the corner of the cheddar cheese, and let’s have lunch.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.
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For the past five-plus years I have sat in a big chair in a small office on Hyman Avenue watching life in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley play out in front of me.