Burlingame: Changing Aspen’s genetic code
Every town has a collective memory and a civic genetic code that shapes the town’s development. It is by no accident of nature that Aspen has become Aspen, Eagle has become Eagle or Vail has become Vail. What happened in Vail was the result of hundreds of decisions made by city officials, residents and businesses. But the template or genetic code for Vail’s development was formed early on when Pete Seibert decided to build a resort at the base of the Gore Range.In my opinion, we fared better here in Aspen with our genetic code or pattern language partly because Aspen was formed before the automobile, but also because its most powerful sons and daughters had a strong vision of what the place should and should not be. From the silver tycoons in the late 1800s to Walter Paepcke and Herbert Bayer in the ’50s, from D.R.C Brown to our commissioners in the 1970s, Aspen’s path and formation has been one of discipline and, consequently, not the easy path. The battle over whether to build Burlingame has been a fierce one because the stakes are high. But much of the discussion has had a technical focus and has centered on unit costs, traffic gridlock and affordable housing goals. I have the feeling that the battle is more elementary and the consequences of the decision more profound than anything that can be summed up in the language of land use/urban planning or the metrics of finance.There are no perfect answers to the dilemma. Building Burlingame will not solve all our problems and not building it will not solve all our problems either. But I don’t think Burlingame will be the end of projects of this scale in the upper valley, but the beginning. Few towns, once they loosen their belts, have a chance of staying within an urban growth boundary. Once a town abandons the discipline of controlled growth, whether private or government subsidized, it is very difficult to get the cat back in the bag. (By that time the new voting constituency has a suburban world view and the genetic planning code of Aspen is radically changed).To its credit, the town of Aspen has managed to build thousands of employee housing units within the urban core. Many of these projects fit into their surroundings well and look like market sale units, not government housing. That path has been more difficult and slower than something the scale of Burlingame. I believe that the fight over Burlingame goes to the heart of how we want to proceed as a town. You can’t build what is by any definition a large suburban development without changing what the architect Christopher Alexander would call your pattern language. If that’s the direction we want to go, then let’s quit pretending otherwise. If our one-and-only goal is to meet a housing number then, yes, Burlingame is probably the easiest path. Most American cities and towns have taken the easy path and built a place called Nowhere, U.S.A.If you’re going to go for the heartstrings with a pro-Burlingame argument, then be consistent and change the housing mix. I would argue that the group most in need of affordable housing is the single mother raising three kids on one income. Add the disadvantage for some of having English as a second language and you get a group that is truly disadvantaged and underrepresented in the housing mix. In my mind, that would be a better argument for the Burlingame project than that of subsidizing a percentage of houses that will ultimately cost over half-a-million dollars each. Why not dedicate Burlingame entirely to the demographic that truly needs it? If you answer that it’s a question of money, I will tell you that that sounds like expedient elitism.Those of us who oppose Burlingame have been painted with the broad brush of elitism and NIMBYism, have been called sinister, McCarthyite, and worse. But with regard to the personal attacks, as they say in the South, “That dog don’t hunt.” Among our ranks are citizens of every cast, from employers to employees, men and women, rich and poor. Our ranks include the very men and women who started the employee housing program in the first place and citizens who have spent 30, 40, 50, and 60 years thoughtfully working on making this a good place to live. I can forgive the harsh rhetoric of newcomers directed at the Burlingame opponents, but it’s more difficult to forgive the city and county politicians leading the charge to build Burlingame. They have been very loose with their characterizations of longtime Aspenites, and they know better. As Jerry Bovino said, they are setting themselves up for a Pyrrhic victory.In roughly one week, Aspen voters will have the opportunity to vote on whether to annex Bar/X Ranch and proceed with Burlingame. When you go to the polls, ask yourself what makes Aspen such an attractive place, as opposed to other resort towns throughout the Rocky Mountains. Part of what makes Aspen so appealing to visitors and locals alike is the direct result of the disciplined path we have taken for more than 40 years in keeping our building concentrated in the urban core. Building Burlingame is the easy path and will certainly add hundreds of employee units to the thousands of existing units. But I believe it will radically change the genetics of our land-use planning and usher in an era of more mega-projects. A vote against the annexation of the Bar/X Ranch is a way of telling our government, let’s slow down and stay the course of discipline and controlled growth. Let’s consider very seriously the added traffic and the weight on our infrastructure. Voting no on the annexation of Bar/X is a salute to some good land-use planning of the past and gives us the possibility of controlling our destiny.Mark Harvey was born and raised in the Roaring Fork Valley. His family owns a ranch in Snowmass Creek and property in the immediate vicinity of the Burlingame affordable housing project. He has been an active opponent of the project since it was first conceived in the late 1990s. He can be reached at Markeharv@msn.com
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