Elizabeth Milias: Ready, Fire, Aim: Lumberyard misses the target | AspenTimes.com

Elizabeth Milias: Ready, Fire, Aim: Lumberyard misses the target

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

When you’re on city council, there’s nothing so sexy as building something with the public’s money. Be it the ill-fated Hydro Plant, Burlingame or the Taj Mahal City Hall, construction is and has long been an aphrodisiac for our local electeds.

Currently, in a rush to address Aspen’s long-bemoaned housing shortage, plans are underway to develop a subsidized housing project at the Lumberyard on land acquired by the city in its massive 2008-era land-banking spree.

The problem is, the plans have no plan. No vision. No objective. No goals. No linear thinking. Without defining what specific problem this development will address other than a vague “need for more housing,” our notoriously indecisive city council, enabled by a construction-hungry staff and emboldened by their personal “feelings,” is pressing forward with schematic architectural designs for the site before they even contemplate who it is they plan to house there, never mind how the project will be paid for. Do you like the sleek modern design, or the rustic one with wooden balconies?

A strong case has been made for housing “the workforce” at the Lumberyard. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But this council can’t get out of its own way, wrestling over competing interests and personal wish lists. They just wrapped up a full year of work sessions and public outreach efforts only to completely baffle and confound the city’s housing development staff in a recent five-hour meeting where council members literally spoke in circles about their competing priorities for the project. According to Chris Everson, senior project manager, council’s “feedback was so all over the map that it might be time to reassess the entire design process,” admitting, “I don’t see how we can coalesce what we heard today.”

Council appears to want a mix of at least 350 rental and ownership units, in four-story buildings, perhaps with underground parking, most either one or two bedrooms, and an on-site child care center. But then they obsess over noise, given the development’s obvious proximity to Highway 82 and the airport, excavated dirt, solar panels, the location of the bus stop and other tedious minutia not appropriate for discussion at this stage.

In a ridiculous attempt to create a development that is all things to all people, council has lost its way. And frankly, its collective mind. Instead of assessing our housing needs and identifying who it is they specifically plan to house there, then designing an appropriate project, they are simply throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping all of it sticks. Rentals? Check. Ownership units? Check. Big units, small units? Check, check. More cars to jam Highway 82? Bring ‘em! Child care? Why not. What else do you want? Let’s put everything at the Lumberyard!

The most recent design presented is based on earlier direction from council and feedback from the public, a notable and noble attempt to involve the populace in critical decisions before they are made. Council apparently sees such public outreach as merely checking a box. Councilman Ward Hauenstein admits, “Community feedback is not the only thing we use to make a final determination.” Well then, why have it? If council ignores the feedback, why would people bother to answer surveys in the future?

To get this right, there are some inconvenient truths that simply must be acknowledged. It’s been shown in numerous studies and consultant reports that our housing inventory is underutilized given its capacity, it currently caters to working families with children as well as retirees, and the demand for more housing is coming from those already in Aspen who desire more affordable options to what they have today. Meanwhile, the working class commutes to Aspen from farther and farther afield because there are no local housing options available to them.

Philosophically then, how do we as a community wish to address our housing issues? Do we look critically at the system we have in place and make the necessary changes to ensure the program’s efficiency and therefore its future? (One would hope.) Do we develop our last parcel of land the same way we have for decades, sell the units to APCHA-qualified buyers and walk away? (Please, not again.) Or do we methodically and systematically identify our greatest housing needs, design a development that best addresses these, and build that? Bingo.

It is all just so obvious. While we agree on little, councilman Skippy Mesirow and I do agree that the Lumberyard presents our last opportunity for high density subsidized housing that stands to make a real difference. And we must first start with identifying “the intention, purpose and audience for this project.”

But why can’t this council just make a decision and stick to it? City staff has exhaustively attempted to incorporate countless conflicting directives. That they have hit the wall is no surprise. Given our dire need for housing options for our resort economy’s actual workforce, here’s the chance to build a large, dense, transit-friendly rental housing complex. The site lends itself perfectly. If not there, where?

Needs assessed, target market identified, problem solved. It’s really not that hard.

Council totally missed the mark with the unnecessary and visionless Taj Mahal City Hall. Without a total recalibration, the Lumberyard will be the next casualty. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net