At the second in a series of open houses hosted by Colorado Mountain College Wednesday night, neighbors of the Aspen campus were given a tour of the grounds where new academic and residential buildings are being proposed.
This spring, CMC trustees agreed to prioritize upgrades to the Aspen campus, which is located on the west end of the Aspen Airport Business Center. The trustees’ approval set in motion work on a capital campaign, as well as concepts for new degree programs and housing CMC-Aspen students.
At Wednesday’s open house, conceptual drawings showed where four new buildings could be placed on CMC’s existing property. The drawings show two three-story buildings that could include street-level amenities such as a cafe and bookstore, and upper-level living spaces. Those buildings would sit atop the current parking lot, with subgrade parking created below them.
An additional two buildings were drawn in an “L” shape on the east side of the property, which could house new studio space for the college’s arts programming as well as commercial-grade kitchens for proposed hospitality and culinary degree courses.
Nearly 15 residents of the nearby North 40 neighborhood attended the open house and walked the site tour with CMC officials. They unanimously expressed concern about the residential component of the plan, citing the estimated 175 additional beds as unsafe and out of character with their surroundings.
“The first thing we need is happy neighbors,” said Paul Fowler, a resident of the North 40. “I’d like to see the density change.”
“”It’s just incompatible,” said Tami Solondz. “We are not against it, we just want it to be self-contained, without them turning to neighborhood amenities.”
Other neighbors cited concerns that the nearby park would become a “quad” and called the residential buildings a “youth hostel.”
During the site tour, one neighbor walked into her backyard and called to the group to demonstrate that sound between the yards and the CMC property line would carry.
“Where are these kids going to release their steam?” she asked. “It’s 10 o’clock at night they want to play their radio. It’s not criminal activity, it’s just my kids go to bed at 6 o’clock.”
The college hopes that the inhabitants of the new buildings not only will be full-time students, but that they’ll also find work in Aspen in the field that they are studying, such as digital media or hospitality.
Solondz said she worries that because the school is proposing that the dorms be “dry,” with prohibitions on drinking and smoking — students will instead spill into shared spaces within the neighborhood for such activities.
“The service industry is notorious for people wanting a shift drink, coming home flipping off your shoes, and just relaxing and doing something to help them relax,” Solondz said.
“They are looking to really max out every square inch here,” said Danielle Van Arsdale, a resident of the neighborhood and mother of two. “They’ve placed the dorm as close as possible to our neighborhood — and even if it’s a totally dry campus — there are still conversations, and windows are open in the summer. It’s just very, very close.”
CMC has four branches along Highway 82. Of those, only its Spring Valley campus, at Glenwood Springs, includes housing.
“Learning is not solely academic in nature, and our communities are built to instill strong connections between students as well as their faculty and staff,” reads information on the CMC website. “On-campus life in Colorado Mountain College’s residence halls provides experiences that enhance social skills, friendships, leadership and insight.”
Matt Gianneschi is chief operating officer and chief of staff for CMC. He told the group Tuesday evening that without accessible housing, the college regularly loses well-qualified students and staff.
“Housing is crushing us,” Gianneschi said.
The Spring Valley website makes it clear upfront to prospective students that housing is particularly rough in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Finding affordable off-campus housing near CMC-Spring Valley can be a challenge. Knowing where to look, checking listings daily, and being prepared to act fast when an opportunity presents itself will help you secure housing in the Roaring Fork Valley,” it reads.
“You may need to make a special trip to the area a few weeks prior to classes starting to view listings and secure a lease. Be prepared to pay first and last month’s rent, as well as a damage deposit. Don’t be surprised if there aren’t many options that allow pets!”
For the past two years, the Sopris Residence Hall at the Spring Valley campus has been at maximum capacity. Each year more than one-third of the students who live there retain their housing.
For prospective students of the CMC-Aspen campus, prospects of housing are even more bleak.
“The Aspen area is, of course, a very desirable place to live. As a result, the cost of living in Aspen is among the highest in the state of Colorado. The median price for a home is over $4 million. Affordable housing can be a real challenge, so students often live with roommates and live ‘downvalley’ in communities like Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. This campus does not have residence halls,” the website reads.
Gianneschi stressed Tuesday night that the residences being proposed are not the dorm rooms that are typical on a college campus. The project team is looking into a mixed design that would include pod-style suits with shared common spaces, or a common kitchen for a floor, along with more traditional apartments.
He said developing the housing goes hand-in-hand with developing new academic programming. The hope is to have a “live, work, learn” community in which students sign full-year leases and combine their academics with vocations in the local community.
This addresses one concern brought up by neighbors, who feel that those living in temporary housing do not treat their neighbors or neighborhood with as much care as full-time residents.
The North 40 is one of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority’s highest end properties. In the early 2000s, the plots were sold to the area’s workforce at a subsidized rate, and each buyer paid to build out their own home. There are no income or asset caps, the only restriction on residency is that the occupants live in Pitkin County the majority of the year.
A newspaper article from 2001 cites North 40 developer John McBride as being taken off guard by the large scale and value of the homes.
“We always thought the houses would be a lot smaller,” he was quoted as saying. “Wrong. Everybody went to the max … it really isn’t ‘affordable housing.’”
The neighbors contend that when they bought their homes, they believed the neighborhood and park area would stay quiet and family friendly. The college explored a residential component in 2016 as well, and residents Tuesday night said they didn’t feel like the new drawings took into account any of the sentiments expressed at that time.
“I don’t think any of us will trust the process until we’ve seen changes,” Fowler said.
Sean Nesbitt, director of facilities for CMC, said the next step is to bring the feedback from the open houses to the board of trustees. At some point during the fall, the college likely will put out a request for proposals for architects.
It will take a few months to choose the bid, and another couple of months for the selected firm to create designs. Therefore, anything beyond the current conceptual drawings will not be ready until next year.
“It’s hard to get any solid answer out of them; I can't tell you how many times they said ‘well it’s not really like this, this is a work in process,’” Solondz said. “Which I understand, but there are a lot of things at stake here.”