Stone: Bloody, punch-drunk, slugging it out with Godzilla
Some people — wait! not “people,” developers (overlapping, but not identical categories) — so, OK — start over: Developers like to portray Aspen city government as some kind of massive Godzilla, stomping around, crushing hopes and dreams and civil rights under its scaly claws. You know how that goes: too many rules and regulations! Too many bureaucrats! A guy can’t make a decent profit around here!
It’s a sad story; heartbreaking. One has to cheer for the poor beleaguered developer — just trying to provide a useful service, improve the town and, sure, make a few bucks in the process.
I have to say the whole act reminds me of the soccer players who hit the turf, rolling and writhing in agony, clearly in need of hospitalization after an outrageous foul — and then, moments later, jump right back into the game, sprinting up and down the field with no sign of that grievous injury.
Back in the 1970s — if you’ll pardon a historical reference — the shoe was so obviously on the other scaly claw that Stacy Standley ran for mayor of Aspen, and won, with the slogan: “Fight the growth gorilla.” There was no doubt back then who the gorilla was — and those gorillas were pipsqueaks compared to the Godzilla-gorillas pushing growth today.
When it comes to growth control (Hold your breath! Switching sports in midstream!), Aspen government is like a punch-drunk fighter, backed into a corner by a bigger, stronger opponent: battered unmercifully, blood running down his face, never knowing where the next punch is coming from.
Oh, sure, the poor guy occasionally lands a blow or two. But we all know how the fight’s going to end — or, more accurately, how it’s not going to end: It will drag on, round after round after crushing, bloody round.
The fight will never end because the voters of Aspen have made it clear — year after year, decade after decade — that they want to preserve what’s best about Aspen by controlling growth. They want to limit the size, the character, the scope of development in and around the city. And they keep electing city governments to do exactly that.
And the fight will never end because the developers have made it clear — year after year, decade after decade — that they see Aspen as a brilliant opportunity to make a lot of money. And, because most of them already have a lot of money, they will bring in the big guns and fight for their “rights.” Their right to make money. Their right to build whatever they want. And, above all, their right to rescue Aspen from its current hopeless condition as a failing, fading resort that desperately needs an infusion of exactly what they have to offer: more of everything!
Stop and think: Does Aspen look like a city that has crushed the life out of all the poor little developers? Is this a town that has to trim back the dense thickets of growth control in order to let the sun shine in on some desperately needed development? Do I look like a movie star? (For answers to questions 1 and 2, just take a walk downtown. For the answer to number 3, check the photo that runs with this column.)
So the fight goes on, and the punch-drunk government has a harder and harder time making clear-headed decisions.
The recent insistence that Aspen faces a desperate shortage of hotel rooms seems to be a clear case of punch-drunk thinking.
To begin with, the “study” that revealed this critical shortage has been called into serious question. It seems the “study” counted all the hotels and lodges that had closed down — certainly a loss of rooms — but didn’t count any of the new hotels that had been built or any of the closed hotels that reopened or any of the time-share units or — well, you get the idea: They added up the negatives, skipped over the positives and called the result pure science.
But when these flaws were pointed out, the City Council shrugged and said, “We’ll stick with the numbers we have, thank you.”
Our numbers may be wrong, but they are numbers. And they are ours.
Maybe there is a shortage of rooms, but a real study (one that counted both additions and subtractions) would seem to be needed.
Or, if not a study, how about some common sense?
Take a look at the crowds that mobbed the Fourth of July Parade this year. Or pay attention to the Pitkin County Open Space senior ranger (a great title, by the way) who said that more than 1,000 people were out on the short stretch of river through the North Star Nature Preserve over the Fourth of July holidays.
“The experience has changed drastically out there from a very quiet, tranquil experience to one that can be quite crowded,” the ranger told the Aspen Daily News.
If this overcrowding is a problem, one has to ask whether the solution is more hotel rooms. (Answer: Umm — no!)
Meanwhile, we hear from the founder and CEO of Airbnb (a website that allows people to rent out rooms or entire residences, usually at very affordable rates) that there are currently about 450 properties listed in Aspen on Airbnb.
And, since many of those properties must have more than one bedroom, this is the equivalent of at least a 550-room affordable hotel, created without construction, destruction or disruption.
Is the city welcoming this? Hell no! They’re concerned they might be losing out on $100,000 in lodging taxes — which isn’t small change, until you compare it to the incentives the city is eager to hand out to developers to build new hotels.
And even while the city wants to crack down on Airbnb, it is seriously considering allowing four-story hotels to be built along the base of Aspen Mountain — which certainly has to qualify as one of the worst ideas to come along in a long, long time.
It’s a right to the chin! A left hook! An uppercut!
Maybe not punch-drunk but brain-damaged.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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