Milias: Flouting Aspen’s climate goals at the Lumberyard

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

Aspen has long had a working lumberyard at its entrance, which is strangely incongruous with its environmental proclamations. The 10.5-acre edifice to trees that are no longer alive and are soon headed to construction projects in the area belies both the community’s aspirational legacy of climate leadership and palpable disdain for growth and development. It has been an ironic welcome from the vantage point of Highway 82, notably for drivers stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The site was targeted in 2008 for “land banking,” where the city paid an absurd $18 million with no appraisal at the top of the 2008 real estate market to acquire a property that would someday address the community’s future subsidized housing needs. Here we are, 14 years later, and that someday is today.

Despite community outcry for a formal housing needs assessment before proceeding, plans for 310 subsidized housing units, comprised of one, two and three bedrooms, moved one step closer last week. The Lumberyard is slated to become more of the same, but this time with individual mudrooms and storage units, balconies, high-quality interior finishes and multi-story townhouse-style floor plans. For whom? It’s anyone’s guess.

Most alarming, however, is the pathological focus on parking. Cost be damned, the plan includes 432 parking spaces, both underground and surface, the equivalent of 1.4 cars per unit. Scheduled for groundbreaking in 2024 with initial phase move-in in 2027, we are officially building a massive new subsidized housing project at Aspen’s traffic choke-point, replete with parking for a fleet of vehicles necessitating a new traffic light and poised to bring our traffic problem to its literal breaking point.

Does the city really believe that hundreds more cars entering Highway 82 at that juncture won’t have an impact? And what about air quality? What ever happened to our bold Climate Action Plan, formerly known as the Canary Initiative? Have we forgotten our lauded goals to promote environmental stewardship and lead climate action efforts throughout the Roaring Fork Valley in partnership with leaders across the state and around the world? How quickly we subvert our community values when building more subsidized housing.

Aspen’s efforts toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and goals of a low-carbon future are laughingly incompatible with the current plans for the Lumberyard, regardless of employing sustainable materials and electrified buildings. Why wouldn’t we attempt to live our community values, not just virtue signal them? We could actually have something physical to show the world, since we always assume everyone is looking to us as the great example. Isn’t it finally time for Aspen to create a modern, dense, green, sustainable, car-less community, along the transit route, that addresses the community’s needs (workforce housing) and exemplifies its values (climate action)?

Strangely, Councilwoman Rachel Richards recently spoke out to extol the virtue of cars, and defended residents of the Lumberyard’s need for (at least) one per household, despite Aspen’s robust, existing regional transportation system, our vast network of trails, and the potential for innovative and contemporary intermodal solutions.

But perhaps most hypocritical was an exchange with Councilman Ward Hauenstein. When asked why such an avowed environmentalist had not even asked city staff about a car-free option, if for no other reason than consideration and contrast, he pointed to public outreach. Yes, feedback from subsidized housing aspirants who expressed their desires for what they want for themselves on the public dime. It is his belief that, and I quote, “not listening to what people want is authoritarian.”

Oh, I see. Not only will the inmates run the asylum, they will design it and we will build whatever it is they want. But it gets better. In a petty attempt to ridicule my political leanings, Hauenstein continued, “Forcing government’s desires on people is not libertarian. Government injection into real estate transactions is not libertarian.” Oh, OK, Ward. How quickly he forgets that we are talking about a publicly subsidized housing project in 21st-century Aspen. And the environment. And a suggestion to simultaneously do the right thing for the community, the planet and local workers who will have an opportunity, not a requirement, to live there.

It’s 2022, and of all places, Aspen ought to be noting worldwide trends in post-pandemic community planning, where predictions of reassessments of zoning and development regulations are expected, with an eye toward vibrancy, flexibility and inventiveness. We’re lucky our community is located within a national forest, so we have a natural advantage and jump start at strengthening our connections with nature, as much for aesthetic reasons as for mental health. Innovative transportation and alternate solutions will be designed for people and the planet, not cars. The largest disruption will be a focus on intermodal mobility: walking and cycling spaces with public transportation provided as a service. And the move away from cars will enable neighborhoods to expand their public, open spaces into high-performance and flexible uses. With less focus on driving, the Lumberyard has the potential to defy its unfortunate name and location, and instead become the embodiment of Aspen’s environmental aspirations.

Build it and they will come. And surely the canaries will too. How about we try leading by example?

What is Aspen’s reticence to do something truly bold, especially something that checks so many critical boxes? Could it be that climate-wise we are just a bunch of virtue-signaling hypocrites? Contact



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