Aspen Skiing Co. affordable housing plan hits hurdle in Basalt
The Aspen Times
Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to build affordable housing for 148 people in Willits Town Center was greeted with staunch opposition Tuesday night in its first hearing by the Basalt Town Council.
The proposal’s shortage of parking is its Achilles heel with neighbors and some members of the council. Skico proposed providing a parking lot for 34 vehicles on its property and use 33 spaces of on-street parking.
Critics contended that’s way short of what is needed for residents and visitors. Even if most employees ride the public buses to work, they will still need to park their vehicles somewhere, said Councilman Gary Tennenbaum, who noted Willits Town Center already faces parking challenges.
“I don’t want this to compound that problem,” Tennenbaum said.
Although he isn’t “wedded” to the idea that Skico must build an underground parking garage, he and other council members made it clear Skico’s parking proposal will not fly. Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said she wants to see the number of vehicles associated with the project reduced. She doesn’t necessarily want to see the underground garage.
Other members of the board suggested underground parking is a necessary component of the project. Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said developers of other buildings in Willits Town Center have made their projects work financially with underground parking.
“I think Skico should run the numbers again on the underground parking,” Whitsitt said. “I say make that happen.”
Councilman Ryan Slack said there is a distinct possibility there will be 148 vehicles to account for, even if Skico’s housing is transit-oriented.
“I think the underground parking is probably the best answer,” he said.
Slack suggested that Skico could increase the density of the project to offset the expense of building the parking garage.
Several speakers in a public hearing demanded more parking. Some speakers credited Skico for trying to address its affordable housing shortage and said the site in Willits is a proper location. However, other speakers bristled at the idea that downvalley communities should continue to be eyed for housing for employees needed to fuel the growth of Aspen and Snowmass Village.
“It is a great project — for Aspen, for Snowmass, for the upper valley,” said Basalt resident Rich Grant.
Pitkin County, Aspen and Snowmass Village get credit for their growth control efforts, Grant said. But in reality, they restrict housing but not jobs. Downvalley areas are looked at to provide the affordable housing and that results in higher taxes for everything from transit to schools.
“Why does Basalt have to fund the employees or the employers of the upper valley?” Grant asked.
Doug Grant amplified the point. There’s land in the upper valley that can be developed for housing, he said. The problem shouldn’t be “pushed” downvalley.
“It’s like a humongous fungus among us,” he said.
Sopris Village resident Michael Meiners said upper valley governments are clearly planning for long-term growth with a remodeled county building, a new city building, an expanded airport, hotels and expanded ski areas. The upper valley governments also must provide the housing for the employees necessary for the upper valley’s growth, he said.
“It’s being pushed downvalley because it’s undesirable or unattainable in Aspen,” Meiners said. “This application, in my mind, needs to be in front of Aspen City Council, not the town of Basalt.”
Before the public and council had their say, Skico officials said they were trying to address their needs. David Corbin, Skico senior vice president of development, noted a recent regional housing needs study showed the area from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and from Parachute to Eagle is already facing a shortage of 3,900 units of affordable housing. That is expected to grow to 5,700 units within a decade.
Skico has increased its affordable housing stock from 300 beds about 12 years ago to 600 beds now, Corbin said. The company wants to add another 600 beds to achieve a goal of providing housing for about a quarter of its 4,100 full-time and seasonal workers.
“We’re little more than half way there at this time,” Corbin said.
The Willits Town Center site is within two blocks of a major bus stop and within walking distance of restaurants and grocery stores.
“To us it not only seems like a good spot for affordable housing, but an ideal spot,” Corbin said.
Philip Jeffreys, Skico project manager, noted the density of the project is less than what is already approved there. A developer could pull a building permit for ground floor commercial space and 93 units above without appearing before the council. The block that Skico has an option to purchase could be home for up to 279 people if Skico’s project doesn’t fly.
Skico’s proposal was lauded by a handful of company workers who spoke during the public hearing. However, the majority of speakers were against the proposal. Several said Skico should build the parking garage, charge higher rent and pay its workers a higher wage.
A handful of speakers said the project is inappropriate. Basalt resident Alan Feldman said the way he sees it, the project is a dormitory for transient workers.
Skico’s plan includes apartments ranging from one to six bedrooms. Skico applied to get Basalt’s regulations changed to allow up to six unrelated residents allowed under one roof, up from three.
Whitsitt said she feels the proposal is out of character for Willits. Skico should rework its plan to provide apartments of between one and four bedrooms, she said, noting that the council has to look out for community interests as a whole.
“This does not work for most communities — this 200 square feet per person,” she said.
Councilman Auden Schendler, a Skico executive, recused himself from the discussion and Councilman Bill Infante was unable to attend the meeting. The rest of the council didn’t take a formal vote. It will take up the discussion again May 28.
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