Milias: The Lumberyard, where fiscal responsibility goes to die

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias
Courtesy photo

In a 4-1 vote last Tuesday, Aspen City Council demonstrated a profound lack of financial acumen and responsibility, disregard for common sense, and disdain for more than 150 members of this community who urged restraint.

Today, their bloodthirst for more housing at any cost moves one step closer to fruition with the memorialization of development entitlements for The Lumberyard. Driven by feedback from those who want to live affordably in Aspen who are not necessarily the workers our economy seeks (“We want mudrooms!” “We want underground parking!” “We want balconies!” “We want elevators!”), council presses forward, budgets and funding sources, traffic impacts and growth be damned. 

The multi-session process was agonizing. In the end, in an attempt to shame fellow councilman Bill Guth, who voted to oppose, Mayor Torre condescendingly summed it up with his erudite wisdom, “I don’t think you can continue to say you are supportive of affordable housing and then not support it when it comes to a project like this.” Right, Torre. To paraphrase former president Barack Obama, the 1980s called and they want their housing policy back.

Are you currently in subsidized housing? Guess what, you’re entirely on your own now. You’ve been hoping the city would come to your rescue with a plan to help you repair and maintain your deteriorating units. (That’s you, Centennial.) Now, all housing revenue for the foreseeable future is going to The Lumberyard. We’re talking decades. You re-elected Torre, but he was never going to fix anything. Not when he could build shiny new housing for 600 more people who’ll live here full-time and compete with you for the same 12 bar stools at Mi Chola.

Then there’s the city’s affordable housing manager, who, without presenting numbers, assures us the city has the funding sources to pay for The Lumberyard. Apparently, the declining RETT, city sales tax and new STR tax are somehow magically going to generate $500 million. And what a relief to hear from city manager Sara Ott that project budgets and plans actually do exist, but they’re classified so she’s keeping them secret.

Are you a commuter or a visitor? City council has never cared about traffic outside the roundabout or the entrance to Aspen. If you didn’t believe it before, the unfortunate addition of yet another stoplight on Highway 82 ought to make it clear that gridlock is just the price you’re going to have to pay. In council’s minds, if you don’t like it, you can take the bus.

Is your local business an ACRA member? Did you know that ACRA is a vocal supporter of The Lumberyard? The chamber made its unwavering support for The Lumberyard known despite no assurances that your workforce housing needs will even be addressed there. Given that ACRA relies on the city’s tourism promotion tax as a major source of its funding, it should come as no surprise that your membership dues are promoting the unchecked potential for increased taxes on you, your business and your customers. In addition to being able to offer your employees a discounted ski pass, you’re getting political activism as an added bonus.

Are you a community member who weighed in, asking council to make its budget and financing plans so clear even a 5-year-old could understand them? Council couldn’t care less. Guth was the only one to even acknowledged it. Are you a developer who stressed retaining maximum flexibility in design and size in order to attract private partners? Council didn’t want to hear obvious development truths: the larger you build the units, the harder it is to pay for them and the more difficult it will be for a private sector partner to make the deal work.

Best were comments from former electeds. Rachel Richards decried any attempt to prioritize housing for “disposable transients” since they might only be seasonal workers instead of forever community members seeking a lifetime on the Aspen dole. Skippy Mesirow implored council to hurry up, regardless of cost or financing, because “the community is dying.” Even Mick Ireland emerged to warn against tying workforce housing to working a specific job, however important, ignoring the schools, the hospital and the city itself, whose proprietary housing does exactly that.

Thanks to the astute parliamentary maneuvering of councilman Guth, far greater flexibility was inserted into the areas of unit size and income category mix, so there remains the whisper of a chance some developer might look at partnering in a deal. It will still be difficult, but Guth masterfully created a little wiggle room where there had been none.

Ward Hauenstein’s, John Doyle’s and Torre’s eyes predictably glazed over each time the words “pro forma” were invoked. The outrageous idea of proposing a project that delivers a stipulated amount of housing for the community with no risk and at the same time an appropriate return on investment to a developer was simply more than they could fathom.

Councilman Sam Rose naively celebrated the outcome, stating, “This is just the beginning.” Good grief. What could possibly go wrong?

This was the most irresponsible council decision I’ve witnessed in 15 years of covering their antics. The “I told ya so” file grows larger by the day. Contact