John Colson: City should reverse HPC on Su Lum’s house

John Colson
Hit & Run


I’m kind of confused about the current brouhaha regarding a plan to redevelop a historic mining cabin at 1020 E. Cooper St. (Highway 82 as it heads out of town toward Independence Pass) into affordable housing for working locals.

I should note, at the outset, that I was a good friend and co-worker to the late, lamented Su Lum, who for decades owned and occupied the historic mining cabin in question, where she raised her kids while working as an Aspen Times advertising sales rep, the ad department manager and, for the final years of her tenure there, as a highly respected local columnist.

That said, I admit that I have long felt her home should be kept in the rather loosely defined stock of “worker housing,” and was somewhat dismayed when a couple bought the house and property with plans to turn it into a starter castle.

When the couple gave up those plans in the face of scrutiny and criticism from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, I felt that my concerns had been vindicated and that the city had acted appropriately.

Earlier this year, though, the HPC made a decision that got me thinking about the need for continuity on our local citizen advisory boards — lacking a couple of members, the HPC split down the middle regarding a new plan for the property; to renovate and spruce up the old cabin and convert it into two deed-restricted apartments, and build a new structure behind the cabin which would contain three additional worker-housing units.

Now, I no longer live in Aspen and no longer work as a reporter for this newspaper, or I might well have covered the meetings about this revolving door of development schemes.

Instead, I’m stuck writing my opinion based on what I have read in news accounts, which do not always answer all the questions I have about some of the news in this town.

In this case, what has struck me is that the project, proposed as an entirely affordable complex by developers Jim DeFrancia and Jean Coulter, meets the city’s zoning and other requirements, has been scaled back somewhat in reaction to neighbor complaints, and in general would more than match the city’s supposedly unwavering focus on building as much affordable housing as possible to meet the needs of the working people who make this resort run.

Then I read about the comments from some opponents of the project, who worried it was “too big” (wait, it sits sandwiched between two much larger apartment buildings); would further complicate the already tight availability of parking (I’ll bet that same complaint was raised when the apartments went up); and that the potential residents of would be, horror of horrors, renters rather than owners.

Along with these rather fatuous arguments were concerns that the residents might be pot smokers or other types of low-life that would drag down property values for the neighbors.

As another local columnist has noted recently, this is a load of horse puckey, and typical of the kind of bigotry, hypocrisy and general bad behavior that comes up every time an affordable-housing complex is proposed anywhere in this town.

These people simply don’t want worker bees living anywhere near them, though they certainly have hissy fits if their domestic workers arrive late for work following long commutes from one of our satellite communities somewhere downvalley.

Not having perused the documents of the plan, I can’t say for sure that I can endorse every little detail, and I must explain that I have long abhorred the “bustle” development style that preserves a tiny historic house at the front of a property but adds a much bigger house on the land just behind. I consider such projects as a kind of insult to the original building.

But, hey, I have long since matured to the point where I realize that everything can’t go the way I want it to. In fact, I’ve come to realize that if everybody on Earth agreed with me on everything, all the time, it might be a pretty strange world.

And in this case I, for one, am willing to make an exception about the whole “bustle” thing.

Aspen and Pitkin County have each done a pretty good job at providing “affordable” housing for their working classes (though the concept suffers a bit whenever we get serious about defining “affordable”), but there remains an awful lot to be done.

For one thing, some have mentioned that an unhappily high percentage of “affordable” units end up as short-term rentals for visitors, and that cannot be permitted to continue.

It doesn’t matter whether those putting these units on the short-term market are workers or wealthy, the units must be reserved for their original purpose. If that is not written into the codes somewhere, it should be, and then it should be enforced.

But, getting back on topic about Su Lum’s old house, the City Council is set to review the HPC’s denial of the redevelopment proposal, and I believe they should reverse it.

As for re-examining the HPC’s role in Aspen’s development review process, as the City Council plans to do, I can only caution against overreaction on the part of the city’s elected leaders. The HPC has been an important part of preserving whatever remains of our town’s historic charm and relevance, and can do so into the future.

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