Stone: Shhh! Professionals at work (screwing everything up)
December 15, 2015
Well, it looks like Aspen might be getting a really great Christmas present — and forgive me if this seems less than charitable (which it is), but I'm talking about the opportunity to hire a new planning director.
Now, I've been told that the development director who's leaving is really nice and absolutely brilliant, and that may certainly be true.
But he also seems to have been absolutely wrong for the job.
Or, to be more tragically exact, absolutely wrong for Aspen.
You might have noticed the heart of that mismatch in the little trick I played a few sentences ago with the job title.
The man who's leaving has been the development director. He needs to be replaced with a planning director.
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More planning. Less development.
Aspen has been on a badly misguided course for years. Downtown is littered with buildings that would have been much better left unbuilt — with more on the way.
And the entire time this has been going on, the current development director has been in charge, guiding the council's collective hand directly to the big rubber stamp that says, "Approved!"
The people of Aspen have been screaming in protest — both literally and electorally.
But nothing seems to make any difference.
The developers line 'em up and the development department churns 'em out: Approved! Approved!! Approved!!! (The only difference from project to project seems to be the level of enthusiasm the department shows: from pleased to elated to overwhelmed with joy.)
I'd like to blame the developers and I often do, but really, when your dog ruins the carpet it's mostly your own damn fault for letting him gorge on rancid elk guts in the first place. Leash your dog — and your developer.
I'd like to blame the City Council, and it certainly deserves a solid slice of blame. Its members are the ones we elected to make sure the dogs don't get into the elk-guts buffet.
But the biggest chunk of blame — the golden trophy for screwing up Aspen — goes to the professional staff. The professional "public servants." They — to run my little metaphor into the ground — are the ones who were supposed to be holding the leash.
Leaving metaphors behind (whew!), the professionals are hired to provide expertise and help the council members find their way through the thicket of rules, regulations and community needs.
But Aspen's development department has been ruled by theories and ideologies that may have been reasonable as theories and may have been grand for other places but were simply flat-out wrong for Aspen.
We need a planning (not development) department that's grounded in the community, not in graduate degrees.
I know expertise is valuable, but why do experts screw things up so badly?
Remember "infill"? That's an innocuous-sounding term that resulted in the Shadow of the Valley of Hecht that now looms over several blocks on East Hyman — not to mention all the enormous downtown penthouses and a number of really out-of-place buildings scheduled to pop up like poison mushrooms in the next couple of years.
Infill was a fashionable planning theory that our outgoing development director deeply believed in.
And, reluctantly referring to a nightmare that is painfully fresh in our collective memory, it was the development department that helped lead the City Council to the conviction that Base2 was exactly what Aspen needed — and needed so badly that all the rules could be thrown out the window and all the community concerns could be ignored.
It took a tin ear to ignore the voice of the people and a tin eye (if there is such a thing) to be unaware of the beauty of Main Street as it rolls gently downhill into the heart of town, past old Victorians and low-rise lodges, mostly set well back from the street, until it reaches the imposing Hotel Jerome.
There are plenty of places in Aspen where a new lodge could be built without doing violence to the spirit of the town — but what kind of "professional" could think that Main Street was one of them?
(Hey, how about a McDonald's on the National Mall next to the Washington Monument? That town needs affordable places for tourists to eat. Approved!)
It took a serious popular uprising — two petition drives and two elections — to make it crystal clear to that particular "professional" that he was wrong.
And maybe it was the clarity of that message that led that brilliant, very nice guy to decide it was time to move well and truly into the private development camp.
And so, as I said at the beginning of this little screed, it has been looking like Aspen is in line for a grand Christmas present.
A planning director.
But wait! Not so fast.
Yes, the person in the director's office is going to change. But now we see that the "professionals" have no intention of allowing the choice of the new director to be influenced by anything so irrelevant as the people.
The city manager — the uber-professional, the billy goat on top of the hill (or the troll under the bridge?) — has made it very clear that he, and he alone, gets to choose the new head of the development office. (And he's looking for a development director, not a planning director.)
Mr. Manager has flat-out rejected the suggestion that a citizens committee should be formed to help choose the new director.
And the city attorney — another professional — has backed the city manager, declaring that Aspen's Home Rule Charter makes it virtually illegal for residents to dare demand a voice in the process.
And the manager and attorney have both emphasized that letting the people have a say will "politicize" the process.
What they want, of course, is a clear-headed, impartial … professional!
Uh-oh. That's where we started isn't it?
Merry Christmas! Here's your lump of coal.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.