Willoughby: Aspen’s battles over change
December 11, 2016
Change can be challenging. Change can mean progress. In hindsight we think, "How could anyone have opposed it?" But in real time, everything is as clear as mud.
Aspen's downtown mall, as integral to the town's image today as the mountain that overshadows it, began in a burst of controversy. The debate, which started in 1961, pitted downtown merchants against a cadre of future-thinking proponents. The idea of a pedestrian mall had been proposed in other cities and local opposition fit a predictable pattern.
The downtown blocks had not changed for 80 years. Residents stepped up support to go against the status quo. They required that mall plans proceed in experimental increments. If mall patrons could not park a few paces from store doorways, merchants foresaw a threat to their bottom line. As a test, city government closed one block of Cooper Avenue, from Galena to Mill, for two weeks in August. Landscaper Henry Peterson set out trees and shrubs in tubs. Arrangements of benches provided community gathering places.
A fall City Council election followed the brief experiment. Candidates supported the mall but approached the plan with caution. Some recommended more studies, Aspen's usual damper on new ideas.
A few more years of community discussion ensued before merchants admitted that a mall might be good for business. Aspen's traditional decision-making strategy unfolded: multiple designs and redesigns led to ever more controversy.
The design featured recycled pavers from St. Louis and recycled antique light fixtures. Skeptics aired every conceivable problem. What would they do when it snows? Why would they use old pavers? Wouldn't water collect in ditches and make downtown a haven for mosquitoes? Who would maintain the new developments? Why should merchants on the mall get outdoor seating when those not on the mall wouldn't? Why wouldn't they turn Wagner Park into a mall rather than remove street parking? How would businesses receive deliveries?
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Once the mall controversy died down, a no-growth response to a decade of condo construction heated up. Cities and resorts that faced unwanted rapid growth took various standoffs to stymie it. Boulder created a green belt. Cambria, California, rationed water connections. Aspen applied numerous restrictions — the most symbolic limited State Route 82 to two lanes.
They believed "if you don't build it they won't come." Limiting the road to two lanes as Aspen's economy and population grew would increase traffic congestion. And that travel difficulty eventually would discourage more building.
For all of the cities that attempted to slow growth, their measures drove up real estate prices and rent. But growth continued. Congestion continued on 82 and vehicle collisions continued to skyrocket.
Aside from four-laning, the most debated solution — to eliminate entry curves — continues to this day. Given the town's division, citizens perceive these debates more as symbols than as pragmatic proposals.
A forgotten solution had gained support at one time. When the Interstate Highway System — Eisenhower's greatest legacy — crisscrossed the West, few wanted those four lanes to bypass their communities. Traffic that ran through towns such as Glenwood Springs brought customers for gas stations, restaurants and stores. Many towns shriveled and died when cars and trucks cruised the more efficient highways around them.
A proposed bypass of Aspen on 82 would cross the Roaring Fork and snake along the bottom of Red Mountain. At the time there were fewer homes in that area and the bypass would reduce traffic down Main Street.
The proposal may have looked good to a traffic engineer, but an obvious flaw settled the issue. During winter, Highway 82 becomes a dead end road. There was some hope that Independence Pass could be maintained year-round, but that was as ridiculous as having a bypass to nowhere.
A half-century from today, which dashed dreams will today's Aspen residents remember? And which of today's controversial proposals for change will lead to unforeseen success?
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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