Marolt: Holding the stalemate in the development game
If you have any naturally colored hairs left on your head, you ought to think twice about getting into this game before they all turn white and head for the drain cover. Before you know it, they’ll be leaping from the mothership in large enough numbers to keep Liquid Plumber working overtime. I’m talking about the development/preservation game here. By comparison, it makes checking out of the Hotel California look about as easy as if you woke up on a park bench.
My humble opinion is that you would be just as well off spending the bulk of your free time playing tic-tac-toe. Trying to keep Aspen a charming small town is the ultimate cat’s game. As evidenced by what we’ve got after 60 years or so of playing, it wouldn’t be fair to say that we’ve lost the game. But I wouldn’t say it has been a victory, either.
Looking at the gigantic hashtag we use as a playing field, it’s pretty easy to see what’s going on. Simply stated, every measure we take to preserve and beautify Aspen makes it that much more attractive for developers. We purchase some nice open space, and a spec-home builder wants to make it into the backyard for a big, new trophy house. We create an incredibly gorgeous pedestrian mall, and every building owner surrounding it wants to increase the square footage of their retail space to take advantage of all the people it attracts. We preserve the Wheeler Opera House, and it becomes a selling point for a penthouse three stories up next door. You get the drift.
All right then, if you accept this scenario as being fairly accurate, you might take it to mean that if we did nothing to preserve our town, the developers would all go away. I think they eventually would. The Hotel Jerome would be a six-story, all-inclusive, self-contained singles’ resort. The Little Nell might look more like Caesar’s Palace without a theme. The mall would be enclosed and poorly air-conditioned. Little Annie’s would be replaced by a Hooters. What I’m saying is that, left without any kind of oversight, developers absolutely would ruin Aspen. And, yes, they eventually would suck so much life out of it that nobody would want to come here anymore, including them.
Successful developing does not embrace the concept of leaving a place better than you found it. If you come to town and put up a building that improves the general quality of life for most people, you have left money on the table for the next developer to rake. That’s precisely what has happened in Aspen. It explains why developers have been almost continually successful here. We haven’t let them take too much of what makes this place so attractive. We’ve made sure that there is always something left in the kitty for the next army of tractors and trucks led by slick-hairs with blueprints rolled up under their armpits to loot.
Say the first developers arrived here and swapped a few pair of skis with the natives in exchange for some nice land in this beautiful, nearly pristine setting. They built some log cabins and were pleased with themselves when they doubled their investment in a year. That is, until the people who bought them added another floor to the existing buildings, flipped them in six months and tripled their money. “Crap,” the first developers say. “Why didn’t we do that?” The game is on. The drawing board is suddenly full of penthouse sketches, and plans for converting hotels to timeshares are concocted.
I am not suggesting that there is a solution to this trench war for bigger foundations. The harder we try to win, the more incentives we create for the opposition to increase its numbers. If we give up and do nothing, everybody eventually loses. What we need to do is prevent ulcers. If you decide to stand up and fight for the preservation of your community, you have to understand that every victory you claim in the battle is actually a loss. It sounds as if we can’t win, and I believe that is true — if the stated mission is to keep Aspen the same as it is now or, worse, revert it back to what it was in 1982.
The only satisfaction I see is recognizing the deterioration of our town no matter what tack we take and simply and peacefully do what we can to make sure it happens slowly enough so that we barely notice it.
Roger Marolt knows that no place can ever be as good as it was, and that is why so many people moved to Aspen in the first place. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.