Steve Skinner

Not everyone has a car. Transportation will look different in the near future. We can’t let cars hold us back from providing affordable housing in Aspen.

I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses when I say that, in the early ’80s, there were options if you wanted to live in Aspen. I got here as a passenger in someone else’s car. I had $500 and a willingness to do whatever it took to live and ski here.

That was years before paid parking and the Centennial housing project. In the years following, many public officials saw what was coming and fought hard for amenities like light rail and employee housing. There were some close calls and a few victories, but the progressive winds of planning were bowled over by the hurricane-force winds of a $2 billion-plus annual real estate market.

There are two new employee housing projects planned for the neighborhood of Park and Midland avenues in Aspen. Nearby residents are acknowledging the desperate need for local housing, but many oppose the developments because of parking concerns. The projects don’t include a parking spot to go with each proposed bedroom.

Does the need for affordable housing trump the need for more parking?

What were once local apartments, cottages and extra rooms for rent are now income properties: short-term, high-priced rental properties. This squeezes the local affordable housing market and the parking inventory.

Short-term, high-end rentals are legal. So we can’t blame local property owners for cashing in on Aspen like people always have. Besides, renting affordable housing is not always worth the pain of managing messy, high-maintenance tenants who are constantly shuffling in and out of the resort community.

The rise of AirBnB rentals must factor into the city’s commitment to affordable housing projects, especially when it comes to parking.

People who stay in Aspen’s short-term rentals surely have a car, maybe even a car for every rental bedroom. Short-term, high-end customers and their SUVs clog up neighborhoods and create first-world chaos on the back roads of Aspen just as much or more than local service workers.

It’s said that more than three-quarters of Aspen’s housing is vacant more than 250 days per year. Mostly vacant second homes. Imagine how much housing there would be if people actually lived in the houses that currently line our streets.

You don’t need a car if you live and work in town. Free buses are everywhere. You can walk. Ride a bike. Ski. The city of Aspen and RFTA have worked hard to give locals the option of getting around for free.

If parking is the sticking point, maybe some affordable housing could be restricted to people who do not own a car. That would have worked for me when I first came to Aspen.

Monday’s Aspen Daily News article about Aspen’s parking issues reveals that council member and mayoral candidate Adam Frisch sees street congestion as a separate issue from development. But I’d argue that all this stuff is connected.

The Park and Midland neighborhood is treated like a park and ride by commuters because of parking restrictions and enforcement elsewhere in town. Some folks who live in the neighborhood have trailers and RVs AND cars, so some parking spots are occupied by vehicles that rarely move. Add in a bunch of tourists with rental SUVs and you have a recipe for chaos and discontent.

Despite Aspen’s commendable efforts to discourage people from driving to town, in 2017 there was an average of 22,081 vehicles adding to the stew every day. Some see that as a good number because it’s down from the year before and/or from the peak in 1993, but few can deny that there’s a mighty big problem with parking and congestion in Aspen.

The parking crisis can’t be used as a reason to stifle rare employee housing projects that strain to rise amidst the castles. The congestion and car problem is a big, comprehensive issue that must be looked at with a wide-angle lens. The people who live in, own property, visit or work here almost all have wheels. Many will not let go of those wheels at any cost.