Meredith C. Carroll: Aspen’s un-livability factor creeps higher

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

An Aspen property listed for just under $8 million recently caught my eye.

“I can see why it’s so inexpensive,” I said to my husband while studying an exterior photo of the house. “It’s an aging half-duplex outside the roundabout.”

One of my favorite pandemic pastimes has been guessing the prices of Aspen and Snowmass homes for sale, and then, if I forgot what year it is, discovering that I actually lowballed the number by several million dollars. Sometimes for added entertainment, I take the same property and estimate what it would cost if it were located literally anywhere else (spoiler alert: it’s always a lot less). Aspen officially entered Scrooge McDuck wealth territory in 2020 when urban gazillionaires fled to Pitkin County and drove up the average single family home price to $11 million, with total real estate sales in the $3 billion range, a 63 percent increase from 2019.

At the same time that more people are living in Aspen, though, in some ways Aspen feels more unlivable. The downside of remote mountain-town life has always been clearly illustrated right on the brochure: What makes it scenic also makes it difficult to access. If and when you manage to get here, traditional conveniences and resources are usually sparse and exponentially more expensive than the same exact ones found in locales with uglier views. It is what it is.

Fortunately alongside the longstanding tradition of Aspen homes being bought and sold with Monopoly money has been a decades-long community commitment to require a certain amount of affordable housing for the people who help make Aspen tick. Except just being lucky enough to live here for a price tag with fewer than seven or eight zeros doesn’t mean you can also afford to eat here. At least not anymore.

Five years ago Little Annie’s restaurant on Hyman Avenue in downtown Aspen served a $5.95 cup of chili. Clark’s Oyster Bar has since taken over the space and still features Little Annie’s Chili on the menu, albeit at a 169% price increase. The only lunch option less expensive on the menu is a $15 tuna salad sandwich, which would take a minimum wage employee in Pitkin County one-and-a-half hours to pay for (assuming a 20 percent tip). (It’s worth noting here that Clark’s Oyster Bar is one of two Aspen establishments required by deed restriction or lease to operate in perpetuity as a “low-priced restaurant.”)

Like many industries, restaurants have suffered terribly amid COVID-19 outbreaks and restrictions, forcing some to close forever while others have pivoted to business models that are better at helping keep the lights on despite fewer tables available to diners. In Aspen, that has meant limiting options and upping creativity, and in lots of cases, the prices — all of which has meant even slimmer pickings for Aspenites who can’t bear one more slice of pizza.

In a blow to what could have been, Aspen City Council voted last week against allowing food trucks in town this summer, citing a lack of interest from existing restaurants in setting them up. According to The Aspen Times, it was only current restaurant operators within Aspen who were considered for food trucks “so as to not create competition in an already difficult business climate during COVID-19.” Skippy Mesirow was in the minority at the Aspen City Council table in speaking on behalf of the diners not factored into the competition conversation because they can’t afford the price of admission.

“If (food trucks are) intended as a benefit to the entire community that lives here, all 8,000 of us and the many hundreds of thousands that visit, I think we got to take a wider scope and if we’ve got some that are interested, starting from somewhere is better than starting from nowhere,” he said.

Dining out isn’t a basic human right, and certainly Aspenites are accustomed to, and sometimes may even relish a little inconvenience. Adding a food truck village or pod (check out Portland, Oregon, for divine inspiration on how tiny kitchens sprinkled throughout a city can be positively transformative across the spectrum) wouldn’t take away from brick-and-mortar restaurants as much as it would add to the lives of the people not frequenting restaurants in the first place.

When Aspen and Snowmass are or become home, you get used to the quirks, inconveniences and high prices (and the quirky people who go to inconvenient lengths to pay high prices). But at a time when the world has become arguably less accessible, so, too, has Aspen for many of the people already here. When you feel as if you’re making a reckless financial decision on behalf of your family simply by eating a basic meal in a restaurant in your own hometown, it starts feeling a little less like home.

More at and on Twitter @MCCarroll.


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