Milias: Housing at any cost, even history? |

Milias: Housing at any cost, even history?

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias

As our community barrels recklessly head first toward building subsidized housing of any size, on any lot, and shoe-horned into any crevice, a proposed project stands to overwhelm its neighborhood and destroy a prominent, historically-designated property.

The 1890-era Victorian at 205 W. Main St., long the home of the Chisholm family, is currently in jeopardy. The grey house with white trim and a yellow door on the corner lot at Main and 1st is a notable historic gem on the way into town. Plans are to build an 8,000-square-foot subsidized housing complex, comprised of nine 2- and 3-bedroom units (22 bedrooms), on this 7,500-square-foot lot by moving the Victorian to the side and erecting two huge buildings in an L-shape to its south and west.

Pushing on the boundaries of what is allowed by code in the underlying mixed use (MU) zoning and within the Main Street Historic District, the developers boldly request “special review” of several deficiencies to the make the proposed behemoth even bigger. Eight of the nine units are beneath APCHA’s “livable size” threshold. And, while below-grade units are allowed, they’re discouraged and limited to 50% per unit, but four units exceed this.

With nine units, code requires one on-site parking spot per, but, in the MU zone, this can inexplicably be reduced by 40%. The project offers seven. Twenty-two bedrooms and parking for seven cars in a narrow alley that is heavily-utilized to service the nearby Innsbruck Inn — what could possibly go wrong? That block already has 43 dwelling units with just 29 on-site parking spaces, a 14 one-space-per-unit deficit in an already over-parked neighborhood. Even APCHA says, “Add more.”

The plan for this housing project is rental units for workers of the under-construction Molly Gibson Lodge. But, with up to two people per bedroom, there could possibly be as many as 44 souls squeezed in. Who thinks all but seven will forego cars?

What’s proposed is outrageous. The enormous density, mass, and scale in no way appear “similar in scale and proportion to the historic home” as clearly required by the historic-preservation guidelines. They are overwhelming and should be automatically disqualifying. That the plans comply with the land-use code ignores how the proposed buildings will completely dwarf the historic Victorian.  

The guidelines additionally require that no project be approved “without meaningful and useful open space visible from the street that also supports or complements the historic building.” The proposed “open space” for common areas is effectively dark landscaped walkways with window wells between the two- and three-story buildings. This requirement is clearly not met and should also be disqualifying.

Furthermore, the relocation of a historic Victorian can only occur when the structure “is not a contributing element to and does not affect the character of a historical district.” 205 W. Main is a notable contribution to Aspen’s historic Main Street and, therefore, distinctly part of its character. This proposal should go no further.

But, who decides?

Meet HPC, Aspen’s historic preservation commission, a seven-member appointed volunteer board charged with reviewing and approving development applications that impact historic properties. They are governed by explicit guidelines and operate within the context of the AACP, our community guiding document, which, since the early 1970s, has prioritized the preservation of our historic resources because this truly differentiates us as a community.

Yet, horse trading is underway. The developers are offering “amenities” to entice HPC into making exceptions in their “special review” of floor area ratio, below-grade living, smaller than standard units, and inadequate parking despite the allowances. Every bedroom will have its own closet! Washers and driers in every unit! And, storage units (If you consider nine cupboards ranging from 11-21 square feet appropriate for bikes, strollers, and sports equipment for at least 22 people)! The project’s in-town location is even characterized as “an amenity.”

The recent trend toward relocating historic assets and building grotesque, multi-family, subsidized-housing complexes on historical lots is antithetical to our community’s preservation values. Our historic buildings should forever be the focal points. Here, the Victorian gets obliterated. And, parking in this downtown neighborhood will become even more of a nightmare. Besides, it’s unconscionable to desecrate historic properties in the name of “more housing” when we haven’t even bothered to qualify that.

City staff is advocating for project approval, of course. Their charge is to approve subsidized housing anywhere, at any cost. Last week, Planning Director Amy Simon was gushingly “sympathetic” to the applicants’ “appropriate gestures” and undeniably sees this is “an appropriate preservation outcome.” She’s nuts. This isn’t a preservation outcome; it’s the bastardization of a historically-designated home for a subsidized-housing outcome.

HPC, appointed as stewards of our history, will decide on the proposal for 205 W. Main on Nov. 16.  Clear guidelines exist that prioritize the preservation of our cultural legacy. HPC’s only responsibility to the community is to properly preserve Aspen’s historic assets — not to help developers design projects nor kowtow to what staff recommends or what council desires. Why have guidelines if they’re not followed? This proposal is a straightforward “No.” The cost is simply too high.

The AACP states, “A respectfully restored historic structure or site honors the history and culture of our town, whereas a demolished one erases a piece of the Aspen story forever.” Contact