Elizabeth Milias: Stack ’em like cordwood at the Lumberyard
The Red Ant
Twelve years, $29 million for the land and thousands more in consulting fees later, “The Lumberyard” awaits its fate despite City Council’s indecision on whom the planned subsidized housing development will actually serve. (Last I checked, a needs assessment to determine the end user is an integral aspect of planning.) In typical cart-before-the-horse fashion, most council discussions to date have been specifically focused on density, the number of units appropriate for the 10-acre site. On one hand, building a new neighborhood for Aspen’s workforce comprised of one-, two- and three-bedroom for-sale units for singles, families, kids and dogs has its appeal, especially among those who have been long waiting for their slice of Aspen’s subsidized housing pie. On the other, with the last large parcel available for housing, we have the opportunity to make an immediate and monumental impact on our workforce housing needs by accommodating the vital service industry employees of our resort economy.
Our 3,000-unit subsidized housing portfolio is in dire need of rental apartments. As we have learned from the pandemic, it is unconscionable to burden service industry workers with the financial responsibilities of a mortgage. The transient and seasonal nature of a resort economy begs for flexible housing solutions, therefore we should build more rental units and maximize the density where we do so.
At the high end, they say we can build as many as 500 units. Let’s do it. This doesn’t mean one towering monolith, rather several multi-story buildings, spread across the campus. And utilize the garden level. Picture youthful vitality and a return of the ski bum. The “gap year” has gained widespread acceptance at a time when the future of foreign worker visas is in question. We can again enable young people to come to Aspen for a period of time, to work, play and ski, and then move on.
Five-hundred units translates to more than 750 and closer to 1,000 inhabitants, and is more bedrooms than the W Hotel, The Little Nell, the Hotel Jerome and St. Regis combined. If we are still aspiring to locally house 60% of our workforce, this would provide a critical boost. And how remarkable to house these integral employees so close to where they work! At the risk of utilizing valuable space for something other than housing units, it’s imperative that we think of the Lumberyard as a community, and provide it with thoughtful commercial offerings — a coffee shop, a couple of affordable restaurants, a convenience store — places where residents can go before and after work without having to travel Highway 82 back into town. While it’s tempting to look at the Lumberyard’s proximity to the ABC and assume that the office park and its two restaurants, two bakeries, gas station, small market and liquor store can absorb a massive influx, that is simply short-sighted and naive. The Wheeler Opera House seats 500; imagine a full house going trying to go to Mawa’s Kitchen for dinner before a show.
We also regularly labor over parking needs. Don’t. Underground parking is prohibitively expensive and massive parking lots take away from what could otherwise be green space. Ideally, the Lumberyard should be a car-free community. With RFTA service tied to working hours, the Lumberyard could become a model green neighborhood where Aspen for once puts its money where its environmental mouth is.
To date, the bar for citizen engagement in local civic projects and their design is low. Had our electeds successfully involved the community in prior projects like the disastrous Taj Mahal City Hall, knowledge of, enthusiasm for and momentum surrounding the Lumberyard would be high. Instead, the process to date has been mired in confusion, NIMBY-ism and massive expenditures. Has anyone bothered to query local employers about their workforce housing needs? How the Lumberyard will be developed is the subject of critical public outreach in September and October. Imagine the scrutiny of a development of this scope and consequence if a private developer was proposing it. A city project should be no different. I hope you will join me in making your thoughts known. Theoretically, council will take this feedback into account later this fall when they make a final determination on what to actually build there.
It is vital that we provide for the future operational needs of our resort community by investing in rental housing for the service industry workforce. We have made bold and impactful housing decisions before. When Hunter Creek Condominiums and Centennial were built, these huge developments shaped the course of workforce housing for a generation. But later developments at Burlingame, Obermeyer Place and Aspen Highlands, intended to serve as integrated mixed-use communities, have fallen short in this regard. The Lumberyard needs to become a successful housing community with a unique sense of place, and, by listening to the best and brightest innovative thinkers and designers who have studied housing projects all over the world, we might just end up with something we can all be proud of.
We’ve already spent a fortune, and we now have the opportunity to do something remarkable at the Lumberyard. Let’s not squander it.