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ISSUE # 98: SubstANTial Progress

"All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."  

                       -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

The trajectory is definitely encouraging. Our new council has coalesced and is beginning to assume its own personality. I like what I see. The meetings are notably more cordial, far shorter, and, perhaps most importantly, when our new mayor Steve Skadron, according to an insider, "is on the losing side of a vote, he goes with the flow, with respect." But we face many issues ahead, and these will surely test our elected leaders.


With a welcome new focus on "process" as opposed to mandated actions (such as last year's "develop a bicycle priority master plan" ridiculousness), Council has prioritized the following issues for our community in the coming year:

  • Incentives (such as possible fee waivers, expedited reviews, development bonuses) to assist existing lodges and condos renovate in order to spruce up our aging bed base. Good idea, seeing as how it is highly unlikely that a new hotel will ever be built in Aspen. The more we can do to encourage the rehabilitation and modernization of our existing inventory will hopefully serve to staunch the hemorrhaging of our tourists to resorts with more, newer and better lodging choices.
  • Adopt a wildfire mitigation plan that provides a workable evacuation and recovery process should Aspen ever face a catastrophic wildfire. Sun Valley, Idaho, had a real scare last month. We should definitely have a solid contingency plan in place.
  • Devise a master plan for city offices that streamlines the office space needs for our municipal government over the long term. City offices are currently spread throughout the town, and for several of these spaces, we pay above-market rents. This makes no sense whatsoever when the city owns properties that could and should be converted to office space where needed. But a "master plan"? Really? I simply don't see a major re-haul of city hall at taxpayer expense anytime in the near future. Keep it simple!
  • Draft a "climate change resiliency plan" that will keep the community viable and vibrant for when "climate change" wreaks havoc upon our skiing-based economy. Is this REALLY the role of the city? SkiCo has done a commendable job by diversifying its non-winter on-mountain offerings, and its investment(s) in snow "augmentation" has proven to be tremendous. That is to be commended. But isn't Aspen's aggressive "Canary Initiative" enough? (The goal for Aspen's municipal utility is to provide 100% renewable power by 2015. It currently provides 70-80%.) Besides, the city hardly has a successful track record with its recent decisions to enter the renewable energy business - recall the hydro plant and the geothermal drilling experiment.  This is not a debate about climate change, just a question of whether it is the city of Aspen's job.
  • Determine the best uses for the Mountain Rescue cabin and the soon-to-be-vacated Aspen Art Museum space, city-owned parcels that provide great opportunities for rental. Well yes, these could indeed be great rental parcels, but not necessarily when lazy and incompetent city manager Steve Barwick and his merry band of thieves want more and better space for their personal offices. As much as I don't like the idea of housing the Aspen Police Department at the AAM building, for example, it sure beats a $20 million taxpayer-funded office development for our bureaucrats on the Zupancis property (or elsewhere)!
  • Determine how to measure economic sustainability. Ya think?! This one should be #1 on the list. The term gets kicked around time and time again, but without metrics, the city regularly funds nonsensical programs and projects (that have no measurable goals) simply because the money is there. Each and every payout by the city (including government employee salaries) should have an economic impact goal and published result!
  • Create a master plan for Wagner Park, the malls, Rubey Park and Durant Avenue in order to improve the downtown core. The current rush to redevelop the Rubey Park bus station has firmly placed the cart before the horse. It is telling that this goal made the list; someone on council sees the forest for the trees and is signaling that this specific undertaking ought to be part of a larger downtown solution. Let's hope, because as much as we may need an updated bus depot to accommodate our current and future needs, we have other problems (such as parking and pollution) that could and should be addressed as the same time.
  • Determine the city's role in health and human services funding. There is already a property tax (passed in 2011) in Pitkin County that raises $1.9M annually to supplement the County's $2M state-mandated HHS funding.  The existence of this new tax creates a controversial and politically charged situation over the future of the current $380K in annual funding by the city to 23 select HHS nonprofits. The key questions: Is HHS funding solely a County function, or does the city have additional funding responsibility?  If it is a shared responsibility, are Aspen residents being "double-taxed" because they are paying in both the city and county? It is vitally important that city's HHS funding guidelines be established, defined and, most importantly, followed!
  • Propose policy changes for the subsidized housing program that specifically addresses the issue of chronically underfunded capital reserve accounts. Well this is certainly a start. And the signal is strong, acknowledging that the subsidized housing is indeed a public asset. APCHA and the housing program were started with good intentions 30 years ago, but in their current state, epitomize the law of unintended consequences. Forcing compliance with capital reserve contributions is step one toward getting this monster back in its cage. But we have a long way to go.
  • "Help new business start-ups." Good grief. So now the city wants to get into the subsidized business business. Really? Yes, it is TOUGH (and expensive) to start and to operate a business in Aspen. And only the strong survive. But just because we publicly subsidize 2800 housing units DOES NOT mean we must additionally subsidize businesses that would otherwise fail. It's touchy-feely for sure, but just not good public policy.


In another positive move, council stands ready to make notable changes to its existing land use codes, allowing applicants to lock in the mass, scale and land use of a building at the beginning of the process. This is a HUGE departure from the status quo that has those very details in limbo right up until final review - a lengthy, not to mention costly, wait for applicants while they await approval decisions. And no, this does not give an instantaneous approval to all development applications. It simply moves the controversial aspects forward in the process to the conceptual review phase. As councilman Art Daily remarked, this has been "a long time coming."


The Red Ant was astonished to learn that APCHA is seriously considering raising the retirement age for subsidized housing dwellers. This is yet another policy discussion to be commended! As it stands today, residents 65 and older can retire in their APCHA units as long as they have worked full-time for at least four years in Pitkin County. City-generated reports have the numbers of retirees who live and will live in housing publicly subsidized for workers skyrocketing in coming years. In an effort (a very positive one) to keep actual workers in the units for a little while longer, APCHA is looking to tie its retirement age to the age when someone receives full benefits as determined by the US Social Security Administration, meaning the age above 65 on a sliding scale for anyone born after 1942. According to APCHA's proposal to the county commissioners, someone born in 1955 reaches full social security benefits at 66 years and 2 months, while people born in 1967 hit full benefits at 67. And if the feds raise the retirement age in the future, APCHA's retirement age would change in accordance. All in all, this is a great first step in addressing the changing needs and dynamics of our subsidized housing program.

But while there are solid positive developments afoot, some of the same BS, like kudzu, continues to proliferate.


Did you know that the city has a department specifically called the "environmental health and sustainability department" with a $188,000 annual budget? Originally created to reduce the Aspen community's carbon footprint, the department is now unequivocally determined that it must prepare Aspen (and the region!) for the inevitability of impending climate change. Undertaking what they call "resiliency planning" and "preparedness planning" on your dime, they'll be focusing on further reducing local ground transportation greenhouse gas output (yes, they hate cars) and electricity consumption (they especially hate A/C and snowmelt systems). How they plan to do this is anyone's guess, but I think it's safe to assume that it will cost you money. The best news from this office, however, is that, according to director Ashley Perl, "Local geothermal is not part of the mix, based on what we've found. (Read: Nothing) And we're not including Castle Creek (hydro) in our estimates of how we get to our goal." As they darned well shouldn't!!


As the ugly beast raises its head with 48 new units coming online in December and January (and another 34 in 2014 and 79 in 2015), the city will be installing solar-powered technology at $6250/unit in each of the subsidized dwellings at Burlingame 2. The city's $150,000 expenditure (matched by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, another city bucket of cash) will come from the housing development fund. This fancy investment will provide solar hot water preheat systems that the city says will offset all energy use by one third and reduce CO2 emissions by about 25 metric tons a year - the equivalent of taking five cars off the road annually! Anything to get those cars off the road, right?!? Besides, the city's subsidized housing manager Chris Everson told council, "It's the right thing to do." Really? Is that the very best we can do with $300,000?


The Red Ant has been following the city's motions to re-vamp the 1967-era RFTA bus station at Rubey Park for some time. Shockingly, despite council's stated goal of a master plan for Wagner Park, the malls, Rubey Park and Durant Avenue, citizens were recently presented with a major teardown project involving the construction of as many as three new buildings on the current bus terminal site. As recently as May, the idea had been to remodel the current interior and improve bus parking, but with access to federal grants from CDOT and the federal highway administration (read: free money), our local bureaucrats have managed to cobble together $4.2million for the project. And yes, $1.2 million of that comes from local governments and agencies so it's not entirely free.

Voila! The three final designs under consideration call for 18, 23 or 28 buses parked along Durant Avenue! Where was the environmental health and sustainability department with its $188,000 annual budget when these astounding proposals were even first contemplated? I could not summarize the dilemma any better than this letter from local Susan O'Neal, as submitted to the Aspen Daily News:

"Citizens, alert. Are you aware the choice given at the Rubey Park open house on Monday was whether we want 18 buses lined up and parked along Durant Avenue, 23 buses lined up and parked along Durant Avenue, or 28 buses lined up and parked along Durant Avenue? What kind of choice is that?

"Are you aware buses are allowed to sit and idle during the summer because RFTA wants buses to be air-conditioned when passengers board? Can you fathom how trashy Wagner Park, Ajax and the center of Aspen will look when there are even 18 buses parked on both sides of the street along Wagner, idling?

"I cannot think of any worse air pollution, noise pollution or visual pollution than to park all these buses on Durant Avenue, obstructing our view of the mountains. What are they thinking? And I wonder how much the city paid for someone to come up with this outrageous plan to park all these buses in the center of town? These buses need to be parked at Buttermilk or the airport, not in the center of town, causing horrific air, noise and visual pollution.

"Please speak up to defeat this trashy proposal. We do not want 18, 23 or 18 buses parked in the center of town along Wagner Park. Someone is out of their mind."

Incidentally, Susan, the city spent $177,500 on consultants who were asked to study existing conditions, perform a needs assessment and come up with schematic designs to make the most of the existing site. Seems that infusion of "free money" (read: no one will be monitoring its use or cost/benefit) has truly made a mountain out of this molehill.


Now before you come unglued (as many letter writers to the paper have done over the past several weeks), The Red Ant reminds you that no one, nowhere, wants to build a parking garage ON Wagner Park. It is, after all, a beautiful open space in Aspen's downtown core. BUT, think for just a moment about a parking garage UNDERNEATH the park. Oh yes, it would be a mess to build, and the park would become a giant hole in the process, but short term pain for long term gain makes it at least worthy of some serious consideration. And we should consider it now, before we throw millions at building a major transportation depot where the Rubey Park bus station now stands, and before we throw many more millions at fixing the leaking and poorly-located Rio Grande Garage that is everyone's parking spot of last resort.

By political design, we continue to lose parking spaces in the downtown core. And that's just flat out stupid. Cars are NOT going to go away. The drivers of them just might, however. We are collectively in the hospitality business, and it's none too hospitable to tell our guests to ride a bike to dinner. Know your clientele. People need to conveniently and affordably park their cars in order to enjoy the Aspen Idea and all its trappings that we work so hard to provide. We (attempt to) "bury" the cars over by the court house; why wouldn't we consider doing so downtown? At the same time, we could "bury" the buses too. It would certainly be a vast improvement for Durant Street!

This is a time-worn idea whose time for consideration has come again.


On day #2 of the US Pro Challenge bike race, law enforcement and race officials were alerted to a suspicious package on Castle Creek Bridge. Out of an abundance of caution (think: Boston), race officials closed the bridge to all traffic and cleared all the spectators from this primo viewing location (from this spot, one could watch the racers descend then climb back up Power Point Road below). The Red Ant has it on good authority that the backpack (as the suspicious package turned out to be) belonged to none other than our former mayor the racer chaser, Mick.

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