After reviewing five conceptual layouts for affordable housing on the lumberyard property Monday night, the Aspen City Council asked for a Goldilocks approach – not too little, not too much on the 10 city-owned acres.
After heading “loud and clear” in a March meeting that the council was interested in maximizing housing on the site, Jason Jaynes of DHM Design presented sketches showing up to 500 new units on the lot.
Mayor Torre said that was beyond his comfort level for what would be appropriate.
“My reaction to the four or five concepts that you put forth is that 500 or even 450 units seems to be a density that is really pushing the envelope there,” Torre said.
He was backed by councilmembers Rachel Richards, Ann Mullins and Ward Hauenstein, all who said the number of units should be closer to 300.
Councilmember Skippy Mesirow pointed out that the lumberyard is among the final undeveloped parcels within the city, and thus affords a rare opportunity to provide much needed employee housing.
“We need to house more people, not less,” Mesirow said. “This is the best chance we are going to get.”
In order to achieve the higher end of the unit count, DHM presented concepts that included underground parking and several buildings that reach four stories in height.
Mullins said the height would detract from the iconic entrance to town, including passing Deer Hill east of the ABC.
“As you approach Aspen there is an expansive open space and Deer Hill is an important part of that open space,” she said. “You basically wouldn’t see Deer Hill.”
Richards referred to a voter-initiated referendum limiting building size within downtown Aspen, and criticized the sketches for being out of sync with the local culture.
“What makes four stories acceptable outside of town? It just looks like a total disconnect,” Richards said. “It looks like a little bit of an alien spaceship landed at the Airport Business Center.”
Reducing all the buildings by one story, and stair stepping the building heights away from Highway 82, would bring the total unit counts closer to the 300 number that the majority of council asked for.
DHM also presented design concepts that would reduce the mass of the overall development while still housing more residents. Jaynes presented a layout that included two buildings comprised of small studio apartments — under 400 square feet — that also included shared space. He said members of his team have worked on similar projects.
Mullins asked what communal living looks like in the age of stay-at-home orders.
“From what you read and hear, this may not be the last pandemic,” she said.
Jaynes said he would report back from the communities that are already open about how the residents fared this spring.
Richards warned against making units so small that they did not feel like home to those living in them. She said building undesirable living spaces sets up a system where people only move into the units hoping to get first dibs by applying in-complex when something bigger becomes available.
“I want someone to be happy for years,” she said. “I want things that are livable. Not just ‘this is temporary until I can move on.’ ”
A few of the concepts floated an all-rental makeup of the new residences. Like Mullins, Richards brought up the COVID-19 pandemic, and the financial risk the city would be taking on in building rental units that go unoccupied in slow economic times. She said she preferred building a mix of rental and ownership units.
“I want it to feel not like worker bee hives. They are like home,” she said.
The public health orders issued this spring curtailed some of the work DHM was able to do on the project, including technical studies of the site. Jaynes said he hopes to ramp that back up moving forward, but for now, things like cost and feasibility of building the underground parking garages were not calculated.
Hauenstein said without having those numbers, it was hard to support moving forward with what is typically a large expense.
“I like the concept of underground parking because you don't have the interaction of cars into the space, but I don't like how expensive underground parking is,” he said.
Mullins cited the surge of development happening in the ABC and requested that the next presentation take into account the increased traffic that might come with the addition of housing for CMC students, the Aspen Fire Department and airport improvements.
“That would do a lot to inform the density that is allowable out there,” Mullins said.
Jaynes said he could be back in front of council in a matter of weeks with schematics reflecting the direction from this week’s work session. Public outreach would then follow, with the potential for choosing a favorite layout for the property by the end of the year.