Elizabeth Milias: Holy Winnebago!
The Red Ant
Aspen has officially lost the war on cars. Who knew it would be the “drive market” that boosted Aspen’s fortunes this summer? For years, we’ve spent millions of dollars on infrastructure — buses, carpool lanes, The Downtowner — intended to get people out of their cars, but it’s time to admit defeat and make the necessary investment to accommodate cars. Or, at the very least, places to park them.
There are 682 parking spaces downtown. This summer, in order to provide a vital boost to local restaurants and businesses, 47 of these are being occupied by what the city is calling “street activations.” Today, our parking woes are worse than ever; there is simply nowhere to park. Alas, across town, hidden in a construction zone and dwarfed by the more-unnecessary-than-ever monument to bureaucratic excess, the Taj Mahal City Hall, lies our hapless municipal parking garage, nominally functional if you can find it, and slated for 300 spaces once complete. In the meantime, good luck. Circling the downtown blocks in search of parking has become Aspen’s erstwhile pastime, an environmental nightmare with the added danger of unintended contact with pedestrians, bicycles, skateboards and scooters. In its current state, the parking situation in Aspen says one thing to our visitors, “Leave.”
With history as a guide, when traffic backs up, parking fees are raised as a deterrent, followed by debates about closing more streets to vehicle traffic and expanding the walking malls. But we never address what to do with the displaced cars that, as we’re now seeing, are simply inevitable.
This summer, we’re seeing another type of vehicle here in abundance, the motorhome. With no dedicated parking in Aspen for recreational vehicles, they too join the parade and circle the blocks. RVs are technically allowed to park on any public street in Aspen. In the residential zone, parking is free but they must move every 72 hours, however, the parking department concedes that the 72-hour rule is enforced only upon receipt of complaints. The city of Aspen is effectively flashing its big “vacancy” sign to anyone with an RV. Why stay at Difficult Campground that’s booked weeks in advance and costs between $28 and $94 a night when you can saddle up to a historic Victorian in the West End or aside Glory Hole Park at the base of Ajax for free?
City Council, admittedly overwhelmed, does not have the bandwidth to address this pressing issue, coincidentally when they have converted the Intercept Lot at Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road into a vast homeless encampment. Buttermilk is another option, but for now the community benefit of a drive-in theater takes precedence. But where are the truly big ideas to solve our critical parking issue for the long term? Our electeds are very good at focusing on one thing at a time, in a vacuum. In the meantime, our town is bursting at its seams and our streets are clogged by vehicles with nowhere to go.
Legend has it that years ago, the Koch brothers were willing to pay for a huge parking garage beneath Wagner Park. The mere mention of it sends many locals into fits of rage. But it’s exactly what we need. Oh, the mess, they cry, in the center of town. But let’s face it, like every dreaded construction project, within a couple of years, the result is usually far better than originally feared. We can use every lame excuse to “protect” Wagner Park, its history as the site of the long-forgotten Clarendon Hotel and current home to Ruggerfest and the Food & Wine Classic, but the park itself would not go anywhere; it would remain right there for all those cherished uses and then some, namely thousands of subterranean parking spaces to alleviate our parking problem once and for all.
And there’s precedent. Beneath Boston Common, the central park in downtown Boston which dates to 1634 and is the oldest city park in America, lies a garage for 1,350 cars. Built in the early 1960s, the underground Boston Common Garage hauls in over $5 million annually that serves to subsidize two convention centers. Unlike our 2-block rugby field, Boston Common is a National Historic Landmark, home to a Revolutionary War burial ground and with a history of use as a cow pasture, a camp for British soldiers before the American Revolution and a site for public hangings up until 1817. Later the location of a massive protest against the Vietnam War, Boston Common also has hosted speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In other words, if they can do it there, we can certainly do it here. I don’t expect much from the current council but it’s high time we elect some people to office who can incorporate big ideas into real world solutions. As the old saying goes, go big or go home. At the rate we’re going, without a big idea to solve the parking problem, they most certainly will.
The Red Ant loves the idea of a car-free downtown, not unlike Zermatt. But first, let’s find a place to park them. Contact at TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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Aspen City Hall reporter Carolyn Sackariason reflects on the same old story, different year, different decade.