Fire station

North Forty residents and an Aspen Fire crew enjoyed an informational barbecue at the North Forty station where the fire district discussed concepts for an employee housing project being planned onsite.

They may not officially be neighbors yet, but that didn’t stop the Aspen Fire Protection District from hosting a barbecue for North Forty residents at Station 62, 43 Sage Way Road. A fire truck was on display — much to the delight of a few children at the event — as were the most recent concepts for the district’s subsidized housing project.

It’s all part of an ongoing public outreach effort, Fire Chief Rick Balentine said.

“We didn’t want to get too far down the road with actual design,” he said. “Tonight’s more about massing and scaling and just get more input from the community to see how we can make it as good a project as possible.”

Currently, 18 units are in the works: 13 townhomes, four apartments and one single-family home totalling 22,892 square feet and more than 40 beds in housing capacity. Additionally, the blueprint shows a 2,280-square-foot, two-room, multi-purpose buildingand 15,485 square feet of underground parking.

“There seems to be a great lack of parking in that area,” Balentine said, adding that he had attended a homeowners association meeting before November’s election in which voters approved the 1.37 mills that will fund, among other things, the $16 million project. “Well, residents are worried about parking, so how can we best fit those needs?”

That kind of engagement is proving to be a successful strategy. Longtime resident Craton Burkholder, for instance, sang the development’s praises.

“This looks incredible to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think the advantage is tremendous to have onsite firemen. I think that’s a life-saving proposition. The other big thing out there is parking, and having underground parking is tremendous,” Burkholder, who had celebrated his 80th birthday two days earlier, said at the barbecue. “The building is very aesthetic. It’s nice; it’s attractive.”

The fire district contracted Aspen-based Stryker/Brown Architects PC after an extensive interview process that began in January.

“We interviewed at least half a dozen architectural firms, and they all had really great ideas,” Balentine said.  

Architects Wayne Stryker and David Brown both shared their enthusiasm for the development, and affordable housing projects in general.

“We’ve done affordable housing for decades. Each time we work on an affordable housing project, we learn new things. There’s a lot to know what’s best for people,” said Stryker, who also serves on the board of directors for a nonprofit affordable housing builder known as Aspen Pitkin County Employee Housing Inc. 

The parking garage was simply one aspect that seemed to be “what’s best for people,” he continued.

“It allows for a pedestrian site. Cars are below; people are above on a plaza, so it separates people from cars nicely,” he said. 

Another need that emerged from developers’ information-gathering efforts? Daycare, planner Chris Bendon said.

“Second to finding an affordable place to live so you can be on-call to help fight fires is the logistics around daycare,” he said, noting that the district is considering using the planned multi-purpose building to serve that purpose. 

Volunteer firefighter Nick Mills, who currently lives at Ute Place in Aspen, is thrilled about the prospect.

“I think we are trying to boost our numbers right now, so it’s a great way to encourage people: There’s a housing opportunity along with this volunteering opportunity,” he said. “If you add in things like a potential daycare, daycare is huge. The cost of daycare in this place is absurd.”

A 2017 U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee report ranked Colorado third in most expensive average daycare costs in the country, with average annual infant care at $14,950 —  19.5 percent of the median family income ($76,594) or 49.8 percent of the median income for single mothers ($30,010). Average in-state tuition at a Colorado public university in 2017 was $10,797.

Those costs are even higher in Pitkin County, said Shirley Ritter, director of the city of Aspen’s Kids First program.

“Locally, the average is $71 a day [for infants],” she said. 

At that rate, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, a family would spend $17,750. And cost isn’t the only prohibitive factor.

“In Pitkin County, there are only 30 licensed spaces for infants,” Ritter continued. “Even if you assume not everybody needs childcare, there’s still a pretty big gap there. It’s a business model that’s kind of broken, but we’re desperately working on ideas around infant spaces, and we do have a scheduled work session with Aspen City Council in August to talk … solutions.”

Possible daycare is a very recent development in the district’s plans, Bendon noted, thanks almost entirely to firefighters’ comments.  

“We’re gathering information from the perspective of the volunteers,” he said. “Now we’re hearing that from the neighborhood perspective. We will be neighbors with this neighborhood and it’s important to the fire district that they fit in and it’s a cohesive mix.”

The fire district site is next door to Aspen’s Colorado Mountain College campus, which is developing its own onsite affordable housing and facilities expansion plan. At an open house with North Forty residents last week, plans for up to 175 beds were less well received, as neighbors raised concerns about a lack of compatibility with the surrounding area.

Stryker estimated that, if the approval process goes smoothly, the developers will be able to break ground on the parcel behind the station in the spring. Everyone involved seems to be looking ahead.

“[Bendon will] put together all the thoughts and wishes and comments from the group and compile those to us, and we’ll meet again probably next week and see how we can … incorporate some or all of those into the project,” Balentine said. “It’ll hopefully go to a P&Z meeting hopefully sometime in August for review.” 

The reason the fire district could expect such an expedited timeline is because, as a government agency, it qualifies for a “location and extent” review where the overlaying jurisdiction — in this case Pitkin County — is limited in the changes it can make to a land use application. 

Of course, the development is still very much in early stages. It doesn’t even have an official name yet — though internally, it’s being called the Fire Place.

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com.