On the first day of a two-day retreat, Aspen City Council met with staff on Monday to reflect on the challenges and successes of the past two years.
The retreat is meant to give council an opportunity to assess the city’s progress over the past year or two and to set goals for the next two years. During the first block of the retreat on Monday afternoon, council members discussed a variety of avenues where the city has grown, transformed and struggled.
“I don’t know about you, but the last couple weeks have been pretty hot and heavy around here,” Mayor Torre said at the start of the meeting. “It’s hectic, frenetic, it’s crowded and we feel a lot of pressures. We have a lot of issues going on right now as well … I think the five of us working together can really get some good direction for our community — community-based — that is in the best interest of our community.”
While council members agreed that there is cause for concern in areas such as affordable housing and traffic, they expressed pride in the community’s willingness to help one another during the pandemic and the city’s ability to confront the coronavirus and tackle the challenges it presented.
Councilmember Ward Hauenstein said he was proud of the way the city responded to the pandemic, adding that factoring the urgency of the situation was more important at the time than getting it perfect on the first try. He recalled thinking in the short term for several months, never planning more than 15 months ahead of time.
“The reason this town is so successful is because there’s people that care,” Councilmember John Doyle said. “I think a vision for our new normal is we’re going to have to have a thick skin, and we’re going to have to be incredibly focused.”
As council discussed what Aspen’s “new normal” might look like, officials acknowledged the noticeable increase in demand for affordable housing.
“When I think about the new normal, I think about higher wages,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said. “I think about ongoing employee shortages, even with higher wages, and I think about longer waits and decreased service levels. And I don’t think that we will ever catch up with the affordable housing displacement that has occurred for short-term rentals and the free market.”
A current goal for the city is to house 60% of Aspen’s workforce affordably within city limits, and Richards said she doubts that it’s an attainable one. It’s hard to know for sure, she added, saying that while she’s not giving up on the goal, Aspen doesn’t seem to have the landmass to allow for so much density.
“I don’t believe that 60% is out of reach,” Councilman Skippy Mesirow countered. “I do believe it’s out of reach only using the tools we’ve used before. … Just like the affordable housing system back in the ’70s, it’s gonna be a challenge, and I think we can do it.”
With the increased demand for housing comes an increase in traffic. Doyle said that he’s noticed that mountain towns have become extremely popular in recent years, resulting in the worst traffic he’s ever seen before in town.
“We need to take some bold steps,” he said.
Council will reconvene today for the second and final day of discussions, where members will set goals for the next two years — focusing on solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions, child care, affordable housing and support for local businesses.