Marolt: We can’t unring the bell on Aspen development |

Marolt: We can’t unring the bell on Aspen development

It’s time for a new way in which we change this town. For years, purveyors of bigger things built in rare earth have hired experienced professionals to coach them on how to tell us exactly what we want to hear during the public approval process, and in many instances, their promises have come up short. Look at Highlands Base Village. On paper that thing looked like the Emerald City.

When presented in scale models and sketches and backed up with slick talking, just about every project that comes before a council or commission looks good. Really, aren’t we all suckers for illustrations worthy of a children’s book? The truth is that even when things are drawn to scale, if you make the foreground trees a little fuller, the background mountains a little more jagged and the smiling cartoon characters milling about the scene a little more chiseled, a project can become fantasy on poster board and wow us into a hypnotic state where we say “yes” every time a developer says “vibrancy.”

Look at the new Hotel Aspen. Oh, I’m sorry — you can’t. It isn’t built yet. All we have are promises that the project will resuscitate Aspen, which, incidentally, has been on the verge of death for 50 years, if you believe what you’ve heard from each and every developer who has come to town since the closing ceremonies of the 1954 World Ski Championships.

The real problem is that none of us really knows what a project is going to look like before it’s finished. Of course the architects do — that’s their job. And, because they know, they draw pictures that make it look better than it actually will be. That’s also their job. By the time we can see it and point out concrete problems and ugly roof lines, it’s far too late to do anything except get used to it.

What’s the solution? Do away with the pre-building approval process. That’s right — do away with it. Instead, let people start digging and building to their hearts’ content. I mean it. Let them go big. Let them go high. Basically let them put their money where their promises historically have gone to die three stories above street level.

Now, here’s the catch: After the project is finished, then we get to review it with a vote. If it’s too big, is too tall or just looks like crap, they have to tear it down and build a park there. If they screw up and build something that the majority of people in this town don’t believe belongs here, the land it sits on becomes perpetual open space. End of process.

We can be fair, though. After the community decides a certain completed project needs to be torn down, the developers have a one-month period to negotiate with us, the people. This is where meaningful community amenities would be won. They put together a package of awesome things to give us. If we like it, their project stays. If not, hello wrecking ball and sod. Either way, the townspeople live happily ever after.

Of course, there has to be an alternative for hypothetical, oxymoronic reasonable developers. It would go something like this: If they decide to build a new project of the same height and square-footage of whatever was on the property to begin with, they can go for it without worry. They wouldn’t need any kind of approval — before or after they build. This seems reasonable since whatever was there when they got to town was part of what made the town attractive to them — same scale, new look, go for it. It would encourage creativeness with design instead of in jiggering lot lines. It lends itself to the idea that the town can get better without getting bigger.

I mean, did baseball get better when somebody decided to enlarge the ball? No, it became softball, and all the beer guzzlers ended up on the field instead of in the stands. On the other hand, when somebody tried to introduce fluorescent-orange, regular-size baseballs to the major leagues, it was a simple thing to go back to the white ones once everybody decided that was a stupid idea. The game didn’t change!

Lots of people like to say that Aspen will never be what it was. That is undeniably true, but not because of the inevitability of fate. It’s because we let them increase the size of the ball instead of letting them paint it orange. It sure would have been nice if we had left open the possibility of going back to the white one.

Roger Marolt believes an official size and weight of Aspen needs to be established. We can experiment with the color. Contact him at

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