Stone: Planning Basalt: Let’s get nasty
A Stone’s Throw
I’ve been thinking about Basalt a lot — it is, after all, my closest major metropolitan area.
And a phrase that keeps popping to mind is an oft-quoted remark, ironically and appropriately in Spanish: “Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.”
In my midvalley considerations, that phrase changes to, “Pobre Basalt! Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Aspen.” (No translations provided. I just know you can work it out yourself.)
Basalt suffers from a severe case of Aspenitis: flooded by Aspen’s overflow of wealth and poverty; battered by the commuting mobs racing up the valley to partake in the wealth or escape the poverty; forced and tempted to dream beyond its means; and, maybe worst of all, condemned to having its own bright light overwhelmed by the glitter from above.
Sadly, the town has a history of responding about as badly as can be imagined.
Short-term solutions to long-term problems are Basalt’s specialty. To use a skiing metaphor (just to rub it in), Basalt is like a skier so focused on the one big mogul right in front of him that he doesn’t see the cliff ahead.
The tragic tale of the Basalt bypass is instructive: a long, bitter squabble to push Highway 82 out of the heart of town and across the river, followed by a desperate scramble to expand the town and build along the relocated highway.
The sad saga of Willits is similar: a desperate, sprawling annexation to capture the sales taxes from City Market and Whole Foods and a handout of favors to developers to facilitate the process, followed by wild-eyed panic as downtown business drained away to the new territory.
Now the town seems intent on staging the latest blockbuster sequel in this long-running “Mayhem in the Midvalley” series.
Like all good horror stories, this one begins with an apparently gleaming opportunity: the clearing-away of a trailer park and the sudden opening of a swathe of land stretching from the heart of downtown right to the river’s edge.
And, following the classic horror-story template, this great gift drives the inhabitants mad.
If you think I’m exaggerating, you haven’t been paying attention.
Recent public meetings on what to do with the newly created riverside open space have reached a level of nastiness and name-calling just short of physical violence.
It has gotten ugly almost beyond belief.
Let’s skip the nastiness.
Some people want significant commercial development on the new open space, and a nice park. They argue that downtown Basalt is being strangled by Willits (actually also part of downtown Basalt) and commercial stimulation is desperately needed.
Others want much more park and much less development. They share some of the same commercial concerns, but they believe an expansive riverside park is a part of the answer to downtown’s ills and they don’t like the idea of throwing away a one-time-only opportunity.
Still others want, in essence, all park and virtually no development.
Strip away the name-calling, and that’s what we’ve got going on in Basalt (complicated by issues of money, property ownership, social justice, whether Suzie really said that about Tammy Sue, whether Johnny will get a date to the prom and all the usual stuff).
But too many people are willfully ignoring a major piece of the downtown puzzle (see above metaphor: skier, mogul, cliff).
That issue is the gaping “hole” in the middle of downtown: the enormous chunk of land currently occupied by a gas station, the old Clark’s (and City) Market building, a major parking lot and a scattered miscellany of businesses. (For convenience’s sake, I’ll just call it the market property.)
This property lies directly across the street from the new open space that everyone is fighting about, and — to me at least — it is the clear and obvious place for major development in downtown Basalt.
It’s a large plot of land. It is already commercial and it never will, could or should become anything else. It is directly connected to the heart of downtown. It doesn’t block anybody’s views of anything.
And, above all, right now it is seriously underutilized (if I may use such an ugly term).
Many people have pointed to that property and said what I have just said: Build here!
And we are told, in no uncertain terms, to forget about it.
Focus on the new open space, we are told. The market property is too difficult. Its ownership is impenetrable and hopelessly tangled. That puzzle can’t be solved.
Let’s just fight — and hate — one another over the new open space. It’s the only thing to do.
Well, that’s just destructive, self-defeating nonsense.
Sooner or later, the market property is going to be developed. It’s too good a property in too good a spot to languish forever.
And if the town settles on significant commercial development for the new open space, everyone is going to be really, really sorry when the market property is built out.
Suddenly downtown will seem overdeveloped. The two projects will fight each other for business. And people will mourn the lost wide-open riverside park that could have been.
Yes, the ownership tangle is challenging. But, yes, it can be solved.
There are legal solutions available to governments that would let Basalt cut through the tangle.
They’re too complicated and too controversial, in some quarters, to go into here. (OK. Just for fun, let me drop the terms “Redevelopment Authority,” “condemnation” and “urban blight” — and let the shrieking begin.)
The people involved know all about this; they just aren’t ready or willing to grapple with the real issues.
It’s easier to turn their backs on the market property, look out over the cleared rubble of the new open space and say, “We shall build here!”
But Basalt needs to look — for once! — at the larger picture and solve the larger problem before it skis into another tree.
I really care. It’s my local municipal megaplex.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.