Elected officials in Aspen tend to be great at sketching out big, audacious community goals, but if there is any lesson that departing two-term Councilman Adam Frisch has learned, it’s that councils will succeed or fail based on the skill and will brought to bear implementing those goals.
Looking back at his time as an elected official, which comes to an end when a new council is sworn in at tonight’s meeting, Frisch said he is proud of a number of initiatives that came to pass. First and foremost among those achievements is a new land use code approved in 2017 after a year-long moratorium on commercial development applications. The new codes require smaller buildings, more affordable housing, more pedestrian space and “second-tier retail” designed to support small business.
“I am proud that it was a quiet conversation for four, five months with a couple of us to make sure that when we roll this out, it was going to be done properly,” Frisch said. “I think it was about as low-angst of an emergency ordinance/moratorium as you can have.”
Downtown development has been much less controversial since then, he said, because the codes are aligned with community values, and builders are not proposing projects that do not meet them. (The Lift One corridor plan is a different story and was not subject to those more stringent land use codes.)
But Frisch acknowledged that there have been a number of failed initiatives since he came into office in 2011. At that time, a revolt was already underway against a hydropower plant that would have drawn from the waters of Castle and Maroon creeks. Voters shut the project down in a 2012 referendum, after the opposition highlighted budgetary and environmental concerns.
In 2013, the city began planning for a new community-oriented use of the power house building near Rio Grande Park, following the Aspen Art Museum vacating the space for new downtown digs.
The council selected a tenant in 2015 via a competitive bid process, but a year later, pulled the plug on negotiations with a group planning to create a co-working space, restaurant and bar, and special-event venue in the historic building. Opposition from neighbors and uncertainty over zoning were the primary factors in the reversal.
In December, the council failed to muster three voters for a contract central to a mobility lab that would have taken place this summer. It would have subsidized new transportation options intended to reduce the number of cars on the road. Existing local transportation providers were overwhelmingly opposed to the $800,000 contract with the global ride-hailing corporation Lyft, fearing that the deal would cut into their business and was not well thought out.
The common thread tying these initiatives together is that they were good ideas that were not managed properly, with failures by city staff, insufficient community outreach and a lack of oversight and direction from elected officials, Frisch said.
Those who get elected in Aspen typically have their finger on the pulse of big-picture community issues, Frisch noted. Mayor Steve Skadron, who is departing after six years as mayor and six years before that on council, in particular was good at proposing policy direction based on the vision laid out in the Aspen Area Community Plan, Frisch noted.
But too often, there has been a shortage of effective action to get the goals accomplished, he said.
“It’s one thing to have goals, it is another thing to actually see them implemented,” said Frisch, who ran for mayor in March but came in third, behind Ann Mullins and Torre, who faced each other in a runoff. Torre, a former council member, prevailed and will be sworn in at tonight’s council meeting.
“The problem is, a lot of people that get elected here, they are super-connected to the community and super well-meaning but don’t have a lot of background in how to manage a process, how to work in an organization with a couple of hundred people, and how to work on a goal and see it get implemented,” Frisch said.
Historically it’s the job of city staff to take council goals to fruition, “but some part of that implementation sits at the council table, and people need to own that,” he said. “[However] that has never really been a job requirement or a strength of people elected to council.”
For his part, Frisch said he foresaw the break-ups coming on many of the notable issues, but “one of my failures up there was not being effective in raising my concerns to enough people,” he said.
As far as what’s next, Frisch, 51, said he is looking forward to more Monday and Tuesday night dinners with his family, including two children, 11 and 13 years old, who have known their dad to be busy with council meetings on those nights for most of their lives. He added that outside of the council role, he has been a stay-at-home dad recently while his wife, Katy, travels one week out of every month as part of her job overseeing the manufacturing of high-tech screen components.
After this summer, Frisch, who worked on Wall Street before moving to Colorado in 2002, anticipates he will begin seeking out his next professional role, perhaps with an arts-and-culture nonprofit board of directors.
He said he will miss trying to solve and work on community issues and that he enjoys the leadership and governance role.
To that end, he did not rule out seeking a position on a newly reconstituted Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board. Among the initiatives Frisch considers a success over his years on council, elected officials from the city and Pitkin County recently agreed to a new structure for the APCHA board, likely beginning this fall, which will include a representative from the city council and another from the county commissioners and three at-large citizen appointees. The new board will have the final say on housing guideline changes. Currently, the board is made up of seven citizen appointees, and its decisions must be approved by both the council and the commissioners, making for a process that is cumbersome at best and at other times seems designed to ensure nothing gets done.
“Everyone has been asking me that,” Frisch said, when asked if he would seek one of the three citizen-appointee spots on the APCHA board. “I need to figure out if it’s the right thing for me and for the community.”
He added that he wants to stay involved with affordable housing in some capacity, as it has been one of his primary focuses on council. The fact that there are still outstanding issues on how to handle underfunded capital-reserve accounts for many affordable complexes is something that will have to be dealt with eventually, he said.
“I want to be involved,” he said. “Whether that is best to be done on the board and people support it, great. If there is a way to be involved without the board I am open to that as well.”