I don’t think I’ve been as surprised by a news article in our local papers as I was by Curtis Wackerle’s “Developers drop lodging proposal for Aspen Street” (Aspen Daily News, Nov. 28). The headline itself is common enough to those who follow the twists and turns of the former Mine Dumps site on South Aspen Street. The surprise comes in the body of the article in which David Parker is quoted as saying an 80-foot-tall proposal “… isn’t going to make it across the finish line, and we’re not sure it would be appropriate if it could.” I was floored. The first clause is simply realistic which is odd enough but the second represents a potential sea change in developers’ relationship with Aspen. Parker also was quoted as saying such a proposal would be “too big to be taken seriously.” That’s refreshing in its candor.
Of course that piece, odd as it was, was offset by more typical Aspen stories like Dorothy Atkins’ “Council stirs debate on extra lodging tax dollars for ACRA.” That’s an Aspen story that’s practically senile it’s so old, but more about that issue later as it has legs.
But as refreshing as Parker’s statement is to those in the public and on previous councils who’ve said “it’s too big” for years, how disappointing it must be for the real estate community, land use planners and pro-growth voices in town who were gung-ho for a monster there all along. Do they feel betrayed by one of their own? If nothing else Parker’s statement goes a long way in explaining why council meetings run so long. But I feel for all those poor souls dragged into council meetings over the years to testify about how necessary this project was, regardless of its iteration.
Parker’s statement explains a lot if you think about it, and other developers should be concerned about their own proposals in light of it. For if this developer is aware his proposal is too big then weren’t previous developers aware of the same even when they were saying it was as small as they could make it? My frustration comes from thinking about all the issues we might have been talking about for 10 years while we were instead talking about “the free-market residential component” in hotels.
Look, we have challenges here — worker housing, low wages, immigration and immigrants being taken advantage of, lack of insurance for some of our friends and neighbors working in the nonprofits, increased need for social services, etc. that often get short shrift because today’s front-burner issues are just a warmed-over rehash of those from yesteryear we’ve been fighting about — without resolution — for 30 or 40 years. If someone were dropped into 2012 from 1972, wouldn’t they be surprised we are still arguing over view planes, growth and development and the entrance to Aspen?
Infill as a development model for Aspen has been a miserable failure. It brought us only more of what we didn’t want — empty penthouses and high-end boutiques — and none, actually even less, of what we said we did want — vitality, locally serving businesses, hot beds and employee housing.
If you think infill has been successful then please explain how the former Cooper Street Pier building is an improvement. It once had an affordable Thai restaurant in the basement, inexpensive housing on the top floor, and a very popular “dive bar” with live, local music, an arcade, pool and cheap eats and drinks on the ground level with, you know, windows. What was once a pub will now be just another stop on the luxury shopping crawl of high-end retail topped with another empty penthouse to boot. We weren’t short of either.
Perhaps you think the new Cooper Street is successful because the developers were “obliged” to put in an affordable restaurant in the basement? Fine. Then explain the Motherlode. It was once a popular restaurant in a historic building — quirky certainly but not imitative of restaurants in other resorts at least. It’s been gutted and is now but a thin veneer of “history” fronting an empty commercial shell below empty employee housing below massive, empty free-market units. It’s been finished for years but still sits empty for, among other reasons, the fact that the desires of potential buyers to control the commercial space have dictated that the tail of free market residential wag the dog of commercial redevelopment. This “vitality free” zone is precisely the opposite of what infill was supposed to bring.
But the Motherlode agents apparently have at long last found an acceptable first-floor tenant in The Aspen Times newspaper which, I assume, still intends to move there. In a town that pays a lot of lip service to preserving our history I find it difficult to get excited about seeing a business that’s been around in the same space for long over 100 years move to a new one for no other reason than to sell their building so it can be redeveloped too.
Need more examples? There are plenty and with more abominations to come because of the slipshod way some on City Council handled the 28-foot height limitation issue. Not that I can blame them really as I was once a true believer in infill too. I am an architect and love buildings but not “building for building’s sake” and certainly not building empty penthouses to create an “economic engine” bringing about a diminished experience for residents and tourist alike. That’s not architecture, or good urban planning or good public policy. We should be more like David Parker and admit the limitations of what’s acceptable.
This column is dedicated to a lively discussion/forum regarding issues of public policy in Aspen and Pitkin County. If you have any questions about a particular matter of policy that you’d like see discussed or suggestions about topics/ issues, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . I’ll respond to all responsible and serious queries and emails.