Stone: Cleverly stupid or damnably lucky? It has to stop!
Well, hell. I was all set to write a column about the wonderful wedding I went to last week. It was a gloriously Aspen affair: the bride was fourth-generation Aspen, a former member of Mountain Rescue; the ceremony was at Maroon Lake; the bride took the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus to the Maroon Bells in her wedding gown, along with the bridesmaids and groomsmen — and then almost the entire wedding party (including the bride, still in her gown) rode bikes back to town to the reception at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Purely, perfectly and wonderfully Aspen.
I wanted to consider how Maroon Lake (despite the Fred Flintstone bathrooms) remains an astonishing place, preserved against the onslaught of visitors by strong and even courageous government action — including closing the road to the lake to private cars for most of the summer.
I really wanted to write about that, but instead I have to write — immediately, before it’s too late — about yet another looming government collapse in the face of our usual rampant greed on the hoof.
I’m talking about, of all things, an “affordable restaurant space.”
If that seems a little trivial, well, it is. But it is yet another case of our local government being out-muscled and outwitted by developers who are either fiendishly clever, fiendishly greedy, damnable lucky or all of the above.
So trivial or not, the Aspen City Council needs to stand up and stop this outrageous nonsense right now.
Here’s the deal: Back in 2007, the Hecht Development juggernaut … wait! Timeout for our occasional educational segment. The word “juggernaut,” meaning a merciless, unstoppable, destructive force, comes from the Hindu god Jagganath, whose image was carried in an enormous chariot, which would crush worshipers beneath its relentless wheels. Enormous, heedless, crushing anything that gets in its way. Yup, sounds about right for Aspen. This ends our educational segment.
So, in 2007, the Hecht Development Juggernaut proposed a project on Cooper Avenue tearing down and replacing the building that was once home to a highly affordable restaurant and bar. (Not their slogan: “Birthplace of highly affordable hangovers!”) The city rejected the plan, the juggernaut filed a lawsuit. We all know that story.
Another quick timeout: a history lesson for those with short-term memory problems. In that same year, 2007, the same development juggernaut also proposed an outrageously oversized project on the corner of Hyman and Spring. Project rejected. Lawsuit filed. Ultimate result: the much-reviled Aspen Art Museum. History lesson ended.
So, back to Cooper Avenue.
That lawsuit was settled, as usual, with council members cowering, as usual, in face of the legal and financial might of the juggernaut — apparently fearing they’d be crushed beneath the relentless wheels.
In that settlement, the city’s great triumph was getting the developers to promise that the basement space in the new building would be devoted to an “affordable restaurant,” with guaranteed low rent.
And then the new building was built without — and I must repeat, without — the absolutely necessary kitchen vent leading up from the basement to the roof.
This is not a minor item. You cannot have a restaurant without a vent in the kitchen. Period.
And adding that vent after the building is finished would cost a staggering amount of money, because the vent would have to cut through the multistory building, including the massive penthouse on top (a penthouse approved as part of the settlement negotiations, of course). The price tag for the vent alone would be more than any “affordable restaurant” could afford.
It would have been easy and inexpensive to do it when they were putting the building up — but, golly gee, they just somehow forgot it. I think the dog ate the vent plans.
And now the developers just can’t find anyone to rent that “affordable” space and pay the million dollars in necessary “tenant improvements.”
So they are, of course, whining that, golly gee, they did their best to rent the place out but no one’s interested. And they want the city to release them from their promise.
By leaving out that vent, the developers might have been stupidly lucky — and if you believe that, I’ve got an art museum I can sell you.
Or they just might have been a whole lot smarter than the well-meaning saps at City Hall who foolishly thought the negotiations were all in good faith.
You know, like the people of good faith who rush out to worship the god Jagganath and get crushed under the relentless wheels of his chariot.
And now, predictably, some council members (yeah, you know who) are considering letting the developers off that affordable-restaurant hook.
Because, gosh, it’s unfortunate, but what else can they do?
Well, here’s what: The council can tell the developers that it was their own stupid mistake to leave out the necessary vent and that they are going to have to correct that mistake — at their own expense, the way we’re supposed to correct our mistakes — so they can make good on their promise to rent to an affordable restaurant.
And maybe next time they’ll be a little more careful.
Look, I understand that a government-mandated affordable restaurant may be foolish — even blatantly stupid. We don’t need to debate that now. The point is, the developers made a promise to the city (to the residents of Aspen) in exchange for some real benefits: a building permit and a penthouse almost double the allowable size.
Now they’re trying to weasel out of that promise and hoping that no one will notice what really happened.
It should not work that way. We cannot allow it to work that way.
They have to be held accountable for the promise they made.
And, gosh, I really just wanted to write a sweet little column about a wonderful Aspen wedding — and slip in a little personal bragging because that beautiful Aspen bride is my niece.
But no. There’s no time for nice, because greed, like rust, never sleeps.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.