Let’s save Aspen before it’s too late
December 9, 2005
I moved back to Aspen in July after a two-year hiatus, mainly because I love it too much to stay away. The combination of landscape, culture and small-town appeal is very uncommon anywhere else in America.However, those qualities that have made Aspen unique and desirable to locals and tourists alike seem to be in jeopardy. In the six months since I’ve returned, I have noticed some changes for the worse – so much so that those responsible should be ashamed of themselves for allowing them to happen.The first unfortunate thing I noticed was that many of the older, more accessible establishments have closed, and upscale shops, galleries and real estate offices have taken their places. The old Aspen Drug store is now home to a real estate office selling timeshares in Snowmass Village, the old O’Leary’s/Zo’s bar is now vacant office space, La Cocina has been sold to make way for new development, and the Mother Lode has been torn down. Not only that, but Cooper Street Pier and the Red Onion are rumored to be closing their doors within the next year.Even long-established lodges and hotels are selling out to developers who plan to renovate and raise prices, much to the chagrin of those who returned to them year after year. Now, I accept that change can be good, but when long-standing Aspen establishments are being forced out because absentee owners from big cities need to improve their profits, that’s change for the worse.The second unfortunate thing I noticed was record-breaking traffic congestion on Highway 82 in the morning and on Main Street in the afternoon. I first moved here from Boston six years ago to get away from traffic congestion, and the last thing I want to do after a long day at work is sit on the bus in traffic for 45 minutes to travel the four miles to the AABC.”Over my dead body” was one politician’s response to the four-lane straight shot Entrance to Aspen, and the new Maroon Creek bridge will have the capacity for four lanes, but will be regulated to only two lanes. We are assured that the elected officials will have many meetings, referendums and public forums to address these issues.However, the good people on the City Council not only refuse to properly address the symptoms of traffic congestion, they also refuse to address the cause. More than 50 percent of Aspen’s workforce – Americans, Europeans, Latinos – commute into Aspen from outside the city limits or from farther downvalley. They do this not because they want to, but because they are unable to afford to live anywhere else. The realtors, developers, and absentee owners here have inflated prices so much that it is no longer possible for the average worker – the one who actually lives here and makes this town function – to buy or even rent within Aspen’s city limits.There is city-provided affordable housing to be had, and more being built, but it’s too little too late. This winter’s affordable housing crunch is a perfect example: The situation has become so bad that foreign workers visiting for the season are forced to live with six or seven of their friends, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the city’s seasonal housing. I can only imagine how America’s already poor international reputation will be affected when these visitors return home after working for peanuts and living like animals.The third unfortunate thing I noticed was the reduced number of younger people living and working here in town. It seems that people in the 25-45 age range are finding it increasingly more difficult to survive here. Granted, many of them are moving downvalley to help populate developments like Willits and Basalt, and many of them still work here and spend their money here. However, what will happen in 20 years when today’s 60- and 70-something residents and business owners are gone, and real estate prices are even higher? Will the younger people return? Not likely.If rampant price increases and development continue at today’s pace, Aspen stands a chance of becoming a place that is available only to the top tier of the population, only those that are so established that they are of retirement age. People who were born and raised here leave after high school – and never come back – because of the lack of affordable housing. Where do those who grow up here go when they can’t afford to live in their hometown? If Aspen’s youth is forced out, the town’s vibrancy, its future, and its soul are all in jeopardy.Several friends of mine moved here in the late 1970s, and they lament the changes that have happened in recent years. Even some of the changes that have happened since I got here six years ago are enough to disappoint me. Aspen is still a great town, and it still has potential to live up to the 1940s renaissance aspirations of the Aspen Ideal, where the average person still had a chance to enjoy its unique character.Let’s not let Aspen become an elitist playground, only accessible to the super-rich. Let’s not give in to shortsighted greed and irresponsible development. Let’s not see big-city attitudes affect our mountain town way of life. Let’s think of the successes of the past while responsibly planning for our future and for that of our children. Otherwise, we might as well just give up now and accept that for all of the efforts of the past, we will become just another overpriced blight on the mountain landscape.Jason Upper lives at the ABC and works at an architecture firm in Aspen.
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