Don Ensign: Soapbox |

Don Ensign: Soapbox

Don Ensign
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

Our mountain lifestyle and tourism economy are in jeopardy for lack of affordable housing (AH). The threat is exacerbated by the energy job market in the lower valley and traffic congestion from an increasingly distant work force seeking AH further downvalley. Aspen and Pitkin County have made a serious and ongoing commitment to AH production through enormous tax supported subsidies (in excess of $200,000 per bedroom) from revenues generated by a real-estate transfer tax. To date, over 2,000 AH units have been built in Pitkin County via this extraordinary program.

However, the consequences of the limited equity AH program with upper valley growth restrictions, astronomic land and construction costs and the allure of equity cash out, have driven out construction, service and professional people. The upper valley exodus, with significant second home and retiree growth, has created growth pains for midvalley communities and escalation in housing prices. The AH problem is gravitating downvalley along with demand for expanded municipal services but absent the upper valley public revenue stream.

In response, some downvalley municipalities have imposed AH development exactions. But the exaction tool does not satisfy the demand, even for employees generated by new development, consequently expanding the shortfall. The exactions are helpful but the costs of developer subsidies are passed on to market rate buyers increasing real-estate prices, corroding market entry potential for new buyers and encouraging resident owners to cash out to capitalize on increased property values. As a result, many public and private employers fear we are approaching an irreversible economic tipping point past which our quality of life heads downhill.

AH is a key issue in every downvalley municipal election. It plays well with voters, but makes no real performance demands on elected officials other than higher exactions (and the inflationary impact). In fact, elected officials have a vested interest in real estate inflation if they own property, which most do. My cynical self tends to interpret this ethical conflict as a different color lipstick on the same old NIMBY pig because one can support AH with little risk of flack from either end of the political spectrum. It’s a meaningless position unless coupled with a program that really delivers. So, what do we do?

I have studied the AH problem for 40 years as a consultant and now as a developer. It appears to me that, without large subsidies, the only means to get ahead of the curve is to use public property for AH development, grounded in the belief that AH trumps most all other public land use needs at this juncture. Private sector engagement is also essential for development cost and quality control, as recently demonstrated by the Burlingame debacle. Absent these, or some equally powerful tools, our problem will deepen.

Finally, the relationship between open space, traffic congestion, energy consumption and our mountain economy/ lifestyle begs structuring growth that is easily served by mass transit, which is a euphemism for responsible growth. Publicly owned lands, served by transit, should be the priority sites for all development but especially for AH.

Here are some examples of public properties ideally suited for AH development:

The transit authority (RFTA) owns more than 25 acres of land in the Glenwood Springs to Aspen corridor, the parcels ranging from .75 acres (Ruby Park) to 8 acres (CMC/Thunder River intersection). All these properties are on or near RFTA routes, with immediate transit access. All the sites are adjacent to services, most are on the RFTA trail system and a large number of existing high-density housing residents reside within a five minute walk. These locations would expand RFTA ridership, reduce energy consumption/air pollution, facilitate significant improvement of RFTA stations/ bus experience and enrich AH dwellers lives through commuting cost and time savings, recreation access and a sharing neighborhood.

At 20 to 30 units per acre (demonstrably livable, physically realistic and financially achievable) these RFTA properties could yield 500 to 750 units; conservatively 350 to 550, given political resistance to AH and development.

The school district owns multiple acres of underutilized property due to parcel size exceeding needs, enrollment reductions, school replacement/unused properties, etc. Some properties are near services, transit, trails and higher density residential areas, making these selected locations ideal for similar consideration. These sites could dramatically aid teacher retention and provide additional income to the district from development proceeds.

Basalt/El Jebel, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs all own considerable amounts of property, to wit, the Basalt Library is currently under construction adjacent to the post office on Midland Avenue. This project is a perfect example of mixed use potential, combining AH above the new library, in a wonderful setting for AH residents with smart growth advantages. Expansion of the Basalt Town Hall deserves serious consideration for mixed use including AH. Parking is an issue but if the entire site (town hall, old library and the recycling area) is properly configured, there is ample space for all three uses plus some high quality public open space.

Carbondale owns multiple sites: the former North Face property by the new high school, the town hall property, the library site and potentially the Forest Service property on Main. Glenwood Springs owns several acres between downtown and the river confluence, property adjacent to the airport and others.

The former Forest Service tree farm, now recreation center and park, is an ideal smart growth location. The passive park surrounding the recreation center is little used and seems a questionable land use given the rapidly urbanizing context, immediate access to transit and services and the expanding job market in midvalley.

These are a few examples, but there may be many others. Downvalley municipalities should identify and evaluate publicly owned land within their domain to become proactive in AH production.

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