Elizabeth Milias: Aspen City Hall — Where vision goes to die
The Red Ant
For generations, Aspen has epitomized “vision.” During the 70 years between 1880 and 1950, visionaries like Jerome B. Wheeler, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke and Friedl Pfeiffer saw Aspen’s unique potential for their individual pursuits. Their visions, exemplifying our timeless “mind, body and spirit” ethos, were bold and risky at the time, but they had such lasting value and relevance that they helped put Aspen on the map, revived the nearly abandoned ghost town, and live on today in the physical forms of the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House, the Aspen Institute and Aspen Skiing Co.
In the 70 years since, we’ve built upon the earlier visions. We’ve grown up and out. We’ve paved our roads. We’ve built the gondola and the busiest ski town airport in North America. We’ve become a year-round, world-class, tourist destination and cultural mecca, as well as a community of over 6,500 residents, while making a significant effort to house our workforce and taking notable steps to preserve our character and history. Through the years, various visionary ideas have been presented and, based on the opinions of the day, have been embraced (free buses, the pedestrian malls and the revitalization of the Lift 1A neighborhood) or dismissed (parking beneath Wagner Park, a hydro-electric plant on Castle Creek, and a bank instead of a low-cost hotel at the Main Street Conoco).
But as vision goes, Aspen is currently flailing. Take Galena Plaza, where six months into the planning process for a civic green space shoe-horned into the Taj Mahal City Hall-Parking Garage-Library campus, public feedback has been sought and given, yet there is zero mechanism for the city to incorporate it. Creative ideas that specifically address the stated goal of providing a link from town to the river have been shared, yet no city department has responsibility for exploring nor incorporating these concepts into the antithetical set-in-stone plans. In other words, the public outreach process has been a mere formality, and the city is just running out the clock on a generational opportunity.
Looking toward the next 70 years, where is the vision? With our local government at the helm, our visionary days are likely behind us. A disturbing lack of vision is best illustrated today by the contrast between two large land parcels currently zoned Service-Commercial-Industrial (SCI), the lumberyard across from the airport, owned by the city of Aspen, and the Mill Street Commercial Center, owned by developer Mark Hunt. On parallel paths, both are soon to be developed.
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The city’s 10.5-acre parcel, purchased with $29 million from the housing development fund, is rightly earmarked for subsidized housing. In order to fulfill its so-called vision, the city plans to rezone this parcel for housing with a land-use application and effectively the mere stroke of a pen. Several short-sighted housing plans were recently presented, ranging from 143 to 212 units, with 150 to 312 parking spaces, a park ranging in size from 7,000 to 62,000 square feet, and possibly a day care center, surely driven by nearby neighbors in subsidized housing who prefer an attractive, low-density, park-like development for full-time residents in their backyard. Notably missing is any vision, in the form of the density so desperately needed to house our critical workforce, and the creation of a community setting that would include restaurants and conveniences so that those who live there won’t have to commute back into town for their basic needs. And really, who puts a community day care facility three miles outside of town, necessitating two round trips per kid per day, amid mind-numbing commuter traffic?
Meanwhile, Hunt’s vision for North Mill Street is truly visionary. It’s not my story to tell, but Hunt will gladly describe it to anyone who will listen. Suffice it to say, all walks of the community would benefit from Hunt’s revolutionary concept, and the local-serving businesses currently on the site would be incorporated into this unique and consequential project. Hunt’s idea also would entail a zoning change. Notably, any change would be a down-zoning from SCI, the most permissive zoning that allows for zero lot-lines and 35-foot tall buildings. In contrast to the city’s plans for the lumberyard, early discussions about a possible down-zoning for his parcel were met with, “Mark, you know what you bought.” This, from elected leaders who are apparently so consumed by the possibility of a developer making a buck that they didn’t even bother to ask what he envisions for this site. Apparently they’d prefer a car dealership, which could legally be built there tomorrow.
Who are the Wheelers, the Paepckes, the Pfeiffers of tomorrow? And how will they enact their visions in the Aspen of the future? The answer lies in changing how Aspen’s government and its elected leaders of today approach and embrace visionary solutions, especially when these ideas are not their own. When we elect the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker (oh yes, and the tennis instructor) to public office, we obviously don’t require them to pass a “vision” litmus test, but we should absolutely expect them to recognize, explore and, where possible, implement visionary ideas when presented with them.
It is justice that should be blind, not the local government and elected officials in a visionary town like Aspen. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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