Stone: When the hammer thinks it’s an architect

Andy Stone
A Stone’s Throw

In discussions about how to put the brakes on Aspen’s out-of-control development, one subject comes up time and again.

The Planning Department.

It’s a curious subject because the Planning Department is supposed to be … well, a tool — like a hammer or a screwdriver — a tool for the City Council to use in carrying out policies supported by the people of Aspen.

And you don’t hear much about out-of-control tools.

Sure, a chain saw can get away from you and cause some serious damage. But we have to hope that the Aspen Planning Department is not a runaway chain saw, tearing through flesh and bone, ripping off arms and legs and leaving the city to bleed to death.

Hang on! We need to set visions of “Aspen Chainsaw Massacre” aside (though it would be a surefire box-office smash: celebrities in bikinis, blood in the hot tub. Oh yeah).

The problem is real.

Now, I’ve been referring to the “Planning Department,” but the name has changed. It is now the “Community Development Department,” and it takes that name to heart: Never mind planning. Let’s develop!

That may seem like mere semantics, wordplay, but still, if your job title is development director, you’re going to see your job as, you know, directing development.

And that brings us to the central question: Who’s in charge here?

Aspen — thank God — does not have full-time “professional politicians.” (Yes, I see you Mick Ireland haters waving your placards. But if Mick is as professional as our politicians get, we’re doing just fine.)

Our elected officials are part-time amateurs. That’s the way we want it. We want people who are experts in “Aspen,” not in “municipal governance.”

But, since professional guidance is necessary for a machine as complicated as Aspen, we need a professional staff. And that professional staff answers to the professional city manager, not the council.

The problems arise when those professional staffers — the manager and his minions — start thinking they’re the ones in charge. Remember where we started: Planners are not in charge. They are “tools.” The hammer is not the architect.

It’s easy to see how things get out of control: The professionals have more experience and more relevant education than their supposed bosses — and most of them have much more experience in political infighting and manipulation.

So the staff can find it child’s play to appear as humble servants of the mayor and council — even as they go right ahead and run the city the way they damn well know it ought to be run.

“Oh yes, Mr. Mayor! Right away, sir! Oh yes, revered council members. We are here to do your bidding.” Yeah, right.

Some of the staff are undoubtedly fine people who want to do what’s right for Aspen. But with very few exceptions, even the best of them can’t help feeling that they — and they alone — are the ones who know what’s right.

And sadly, for too many others the planning job is just a stepping stone to a career getting rich playing for the other team: working for the developers they are supposed to be controlling.

One way or the other, we get recommendations for approval of the most godawful projects.

The one that caught my eye this week was the development staff’s enthusiastic stamp of approval for multiple and wild variances for Mark Hunt’s Base2 hotel at the corner of Main and Monarch.

(Yes, I know I referred to Hunt as one of the “variance weasels” last week, and I apologize for picking on him again. But here he is, running at the head of the rat pack of planners, so what can I do? Once these projects are built, we are stuck with them for approximately forever. They never give up — why should I?)

The hotel, if approved, would be more than twice as large as the zoning allows. I repeat: more than twice as large. Plus it would be a full three stories tall — much taller than anything else around it.

And remember: The people just voted against granting variances of exactly this kind.

So, naturally, the Development Department is all in favor.

A department memo says, “The subject property is located in a transitional area at the edge of the mixed-use zone district, which creates an appropriate context for larger and taller building mass.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the “context” at Monarch and Mill — a lack of familiarity apparently shared by the jargon-addicted development staff — the proposed hotel would be across Main Street from the one-story Main and Monarch building and across Monarch from Carl’s Pharmacy, which is a scant two stories. Diagonally across the intersection is the old Victorian that houses Matsuhisa, the first in a row of small Victorians stretching east toward Mill Street.

The hotel’s immediate neighbor on Main Street would be the Cortina Lodge, which — in this “context” — would wind up looking like a baby carriage about to be run over by a garbage truck

Heading west on both sides of Main Street is a series of relatively untouched, small Victorians housing small, local businesses, including the Gypsy Woman, Explore Booksellers and, in an old commercial building, Main Street Bakery.

Oh yeah, that’s a context that’s just crying out for a three-story hotel.

The only large building anywhere nearby is the Hotel Jerome, a full block away. And if you don’t think the Jerome deserves to be an exception, then you don’t deserve to live in Aspen.

Everything else, as far as the eye can see, is small and low. Spaces are wide-open to the sky and the mountains.

It’s part of what makes Aspen great — so naturally the Community Development staff thinks that needs to be changed.

Never mind what the people have made clear through approval of Referendum 1.

And never mind what any reasonable person with a reasonable concern for Aspen would say.

The planning staff knows better. They’re professionals.

You know what? Maybe that chain-saw analogy wasn’t so far off.

So I ask again: Who’s in charge here?

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is


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