Friederich Goltz was a German-born physiologist who lived from 1834 to 1902. Among other accomplishments, he was interested in the connection between the physiological and the spiritual. As such he conducted early scientific experiments seeking evidence of the soul. Many of his experiments would be considered inane and barbaric by today’s standards, as they involved surgical experimentation on animals. In 1869, while conducting one such experiment, Goltz was able to show that a living frog that had had its brain removed would remain in slowly heated water until it boiled to death. On the other hand, frogs with brains would recognize the danger of the growing heat and attempt to escape the water, most of the time.
Consequently Dr. Goltz unwittingly founded a metaphor more well known than any of his dubious scientific achievements. Those who remain unaware of the gradual negative change resulting from their consistently destructive actions are destined to metaphorically boil to death from their own obliviousness. In the case of civic leaders, they take along those they serve.
Will such be the legacy of the current Aspen City Council? One of the most historic and storied North American ski lifts is on the verge of becoming a semi-private venue for 14 wealthy townhome owners and 10 lucky deed-restricted housing occupants. How has it come to this?
After five years of anti-development land-use decision-making coincidental to the worst recession in seven decades, has Aspen become so conditioned to intransigence towards individual property rights that it cannot recognize a tipping point when it sees one? Is Aspen beginning to boil to death in a metaphorical pot of obduracy where even its core legacy as a premier ski town is in jeopardy?
The new owners of the property that was once to be the Lodge at Aspen Mountain lament that alas, they would love to bring forward a proposal for a lodge, but that dastardly economy has simply made such a project unprofitable. Who besides me calls BS on this vapidly indefensible statement? It’s not, as the saying goes “the economy stupid,” it’s the exactions and the sheer pain of the process.
You can bet the new owners have thoroughly researched the history of their property’s development applications and decided that three times is not the charm. One can hardly blame them for wanting to avoid the potential for a repeat performance of perhaps the most transparently dishonest development review process ever foisted upon an Aspen property owner, the now infamous 2008 Lodge and Aspen Mountain COWOP (an acronym meaning “for the convenience and welfare of the pubic” used to describe a land-use by committee process). The development review process ended in the council rejecting a volunteer citizen committee’s recommendation after literally thousands of hours of collective work to define an acceptable, community-based result.
So the owners retreat to the relative safety of “use by right” zoning, and bring forward a simple application for residential development on possibly the single most important parcel of land to Aspen’s continued status as an international ski destination. Rather than a vibrant, inviting, amenity-infused community asset, Lift One will get 24 front doors, most of which will be vacant much of the year.
Aspen has a remarkable and rare sense of place, and that sense of place is endangered. The council’s failure to make Lift One an integrated component of the exquisite quilt which is the Aspen community is more than a symbolic failure, it may start Aspen’s slow decline to ski town mediocrity.
Such a decline will take some time, and those with lower standards won’t notice the difference until it’s too late. Aspen exists currently as a superb instance of societal possibility. It is the intersection of close-knit community, five-star resort, international think tank, arts collective, business center, environmental symbol, and of course, skiing. Such places are not created overnight. They develop over time, with proper vision, careful stewardship — and let’s be honest — a fortunate dose of location and luck. Once mature, such places are both rare and durable, evoking strong sentiments and even stronger traditions that can carry on for generations.
But I sense a change occurring. Aspen’s leadership vision has narrowed and turned inward. Even its environmental initiatives intertwine with self-aggrandizement. Unlike its founders, Aspen’s current leaders appear to demonstrate little interest in the interconnectedness of the various elements of their community’s societal quilt. Free market housing is no longer welcome in the downtown core. More environmentally friendly airplanes are not welcome at Sardy Field because their wingspans are 60 inches too wide, sort of. The homeless are given bus tickets to the arctic north. Downvalley workers, the people who make Aspen’s economy possible, continue to wait in line at the paradoxically named and yet unimproved “Entrance to Aspen,” belching automobile exhaust into the atmosphere as they idle, while counting the hours away from their families. These are all examples of threats to the beautiful quilt that is the delicately balanced society of Aspen.
And now even ski lodges are not welcome, err I mean not economically feasible, in Aspen. Yeah, right. Goltz’s dreadful experiments notwithstanding, Aspen has some soul searching to do, lest it end up like some frog boiling metaphorically from the growing heat of its own divisive actions.
Email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.