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Dissecting paradise 851

Dissecting paradise: Aspen

An examination of what makes mountain resort communities click

First in a series

I have a strange obsession. And for the past 12 years it seems to have overtaken most aspects of my life. It affects where I live, recreate, work and how I converse. This time of year it seems to intensify as the shelves of local retail outlets display ski and snowboard magazines with feature articles like "Drop in on your favourite mountain spots," "The best ski town in North America," and "Life as a ski bum."

I am addicted to learning about what makes mountain resort communities click. My chosen profession as a planner allowed this indulgence to flourish. First, working in Whistler during the early ’90s boom gave me the curiosity to learn about different resort towns; what was it like to live there, how did they deal with similar problems, could there be an ideal resort community?

Second, the now defunct Snow Country Magazine and ski journalist Leslie Anthony had the ability to spur my fixation with articles, photos and local legend biographies on great ski towns. Early articles considered the likes of Aspen, Breckenridge, and Jackson Hole, but as affordability became beyond the reach of middle America, less glitzy and more gutsy towns like Leadville, Bend, Nelson and Hailey became the norm.

For me it didn’t matter. I dreamed about moving to other ski towns and experiencing the life first hand.

In 1997, on a whim, I got the opportunity and moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Not only was I able to live in the heart of the U.S. Ski Country, but in less than four hours I could visit and experience life in Aspen, Snowmass, Vail, Leadville, Breckenridge, Copper, Keystone, Loveland Pass, Winter Park, Berthoud Pass, and Avon/Beaver Creek. Add on a few more hours on the road and I could enjoy Telluride, Monarch Pass, Crested Butte, Durango and even Taos and Park City.

While in The Boat I loved meeting with policy and decision makers from other resort communities, learning about their initiatives and sharing problems. It made life and work in a resort more of a communal thing.

Two years ago I returned to Canada, re-established roots in Whistler and had my second child. It was my hope that British Columbia would now be the ski industry’s North American Mecca. Despite Whistler’s dominance and B.C.’s ski product, there is still a long way to go before B.C. is able to provide the diversity offered by the towns in the U.S. Rockies. So leaving Colorado, I realize that I miss the information, I am out of the loop. I hope to change this by writing series of articles for Pique Newsmagazine that gives you the scoop on other resort towns. This first installment focuses on Aspen and other snipits of information coming out of Colorado. In the future resort towns all over North America will be featured.

Aspen, Colorado

In terms of North American mountain resort towns, Aspen by far is the pinnacle of those communities west of the Continental Divide. It is a jewel of a town where the Roaring Fork River winds through the spectacular Elks mountain range, flanked by quaking aspen trees. Aspen was not always a glitzy ski town. It struggled through five decades of mining rich silver ores, before the silver returned in the pocket books and accessories of trendy clientele.

Aspen deserves its status as this remote town carved the first tracks of greatness in the ski industry west of the Continental Divide (although Steamboat Springs’ Howelsen Hill is the oldest western ski hill). Aspen is romantic, with its century-old buildings, cultural landmarks, movie stars and four ski mountains boasting dry (and recently elusive) Colorado powder.

In the 1980s and 1990s younger mountain communities have attempted to deal with escalating property values, affordability issues and economic diversity. Aspen has had to address these issues and the resulting spin-offs since the 1970s.

Aspen is likely this continent’s first mountain resort community to implement stringent growth management techniques. The initiative was considered almost un-American as it attempted to challenge private property rights. In Republican dominated Colorado, the city’s socialist-leaning policies earned it the nickname the Republic (as in Soviet Republic) of Aspen. But somehow, like local resident Hunter S. Thomson and his weird life, Aspen got away with it.

Since 1976, Aspen has had growth management policies for both commercial and residential development. Effectively it limits the number of new development rights allocated in a single year. The yearly allocations are very restrictive, to say the least. For example, in a single calendar year a total of just 24,000 square feet of new service, retail, office and commercial lodging space is permitted, and only 25 combined free market housing and tourist accommodation units. Like Whistler the affordable housing units are exempt, up to a running total of 400 units. Even if a developer is successful in finding support for the new density, they then must follow a burdensome development review process that even the planning staff considers risky, confusing and subjective.

So have the growth management policies worked? Is Aspen a better place? For the most part a visitor would consider Aspen a success; it is beautiful, vibrant and of course exclusive. Whether the policies have been successful for the resident and business community depends on what faction you represent. Perhaps if you were a residential property owner or in the lodging business you would consider the growth management effective. It has ensured controlled growth, reduced competition, and any project that successfully grinds through the approval process should be supported by the community, as it will have to have a myriad of mitigating amenities, from parking to historical preservation.

On the flip side, if you were an average local resident or owner of the ski hill, a retail store or restaurant, you may be concerned about the lack of affordable housing and commercial space, the declining customer base and the lack of rejuvenation in the commercial core and the original Aspen lodges.

Chris Bendon, Long Range Planner for the City of Aspen, acknowledges that the allocation method has been effective, as it has ensured no new projects. "It’s worked but I don’t know if I can say it’s been successful – the lack of commercial activity does worry us."

The main issue is that the policy framework of the Aspen community planning documents, which were drafted during the sprawling 1970s, discouraged concentrated and mixed-use development. Growth areas resulted in large lots, the reliance on the automobile and separation of uses. Over reliance on the automobile has resulted in congestion on major arterials, creating a pollution problem similar to what’s found in the urban centres both residents and visitors wanted to escape.

Although elected officials in Aspen have been working hard to reduce reliance on the private automobile, through buses and possibly light rail (Aspen-Pitkin County has the second largest transit system in the state of Colorado), these solutions are reactive and expensive. A more proactive approach is to consider designated land uses, to determine whether the solution can occur within the existing developed area of Aspen. There are two such initiatives currently in the works.

The major concern for Aspen, as identified by the city’s planning department, is economic sustainability, as a declining commercial base directly impacts the sales-tax-dependent city. As expected, a task force comprising the city and the chamber of commerce is beginning to delve into the issue.

One recent initiative that flies in the face of the 25-year-old growth management plan is an infill program to encourage new development and redevelopment of commercial and mixed-use buildings, concentrating uses while developing the limited land resource more efficiently. Aspen Planner Bendon indicated that, "The lessening of use intensity has created a less vibrant, less interesting town as most of these homes are vacant 11 months of the year."

The 1970s growth management policy was taken from suburban growth principles of the time, where downzoning, excessive parking requirements, single use projects and sprawl were the norm.

The city has also tried to fix the impacts of the large, sprawling single family lot issue by providing incentives for property owners to split large lots and construct smaller homes on smaller lots. This has been successful in preserving the character of historic Aspen, as well as increasing density in the neighbourhoods close to the commercial centres.

Snipits:

• While the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 bid investigates transportation options for the Sea to Sky Corridor it may be interesting to learn that the state of Colorado recently held a referendum to further study the construction of a monorail along the I-70 corridor. The I-70 monorail would connect Denver International Airport with Downtown Denver, Summit County (home of Breckenridge, Copper and Keystone), Vail, and Avon/Beaver Creek. Despite early polling (prior to Sept. 11) which indicated overwhelming support for the project, concern with a declining economy put the support off the rails. The monorail was defeated by a 2-1 margin. All state ballot issues requiring public funding were defeated.(Denver Post)

• Although ponderosa pine and aspens dominate the Colorado landscape an Oklahoma businessman has chosen to build the world’s largest log home from Western red cedar – logged in British Columbia. The 9,662 square metre (104,000 square foot) cosy mountain home will be built on a 7,000 acre ranch near Steamboat Springs. (Vancouver Sun)

• Labour shortages are a major concern for tourism-related industries in the U.S. west. Business is lobbying congress to relax federal immigration policy so that thousands of service jobs can be filled by transients from other countries. It is anticipated that this year approximately 16,000 jobs in Colorado will be unfulfilled. The number is expected to increase to 60,000 by the year 2020. (High Country News)