Going forward while looking over your shoulder in America’s preminent ski town
by Allen Best
Aspen has a tendency to look over its shoulder. How could it not? It has phenomenal bones inherited from the boom years of the mining era of the late 1800s. Then, with skiing and culture as the primary seeds, it became the nation’s premier mountain resort, the transition far more messy but full of energy than that simple statement implies.
But what exactly was the recipe for success and vitality?
That was the question obliquely asked at a panel session held on July 11 as part of the Aspen Historical Society’s 50th anniversary chautauqua. The more direct question posed by Leslie Lamont, a planning consultant and former Pitkin County commissioner, was about how Aspen could continue to innovate.
That question isn’t unique to Aspen, but there may be greater anxiety surrounding that question, particularly as the community debates again and again the same-old questions about heights and mass of new buildings and preservation of old ones are unending.
“I describe myself as a community development therapist,” said Chris Bendon, the director of Aspen’s Department of Community Development. “It’s really about getting people through the process of change.”
Bendon detects anxiety about change in almost every public hearing. There’s a perception, he says, that Aspen is tremendously fragile, and that any false move could destroy what everybody treasures—and what makes the economy work so strongly.
That anxiety is reflected in regulations. “We have pages and pages of regulations governing what kind of light you can install outside a house,” said Bendon, a planner in Aspen for 16 years. “There’s a certain amount of stagnation that comes with layering on of regulation, when you’re trying to hair-spray a time and place so that it doesn’t move.”
He also sees stagnation being imposed in the form of architecture. Many out-of-town architects arrive with plans for big-log beams with triangles on them. That, he suggested, is not innovation, but formulaic design.
Ann Mullins, newly elected city councilor, has been active in the city’s architectural and historic preservation commission, spoke of the need to preserve a diversity of housing styles and sizes. But there are also problems with unrestrained preservation.
“Should we designate everything? Pretty soon, everything qualifies as historic,” she said. “And pretty soon you have no room for innovation. Do you preserve just the best of the best?”
Andy Stone, a journalist off and on since the early 1970s in Aspen, had a more nostalgic take, looking back to a time when Aspen had cheap housing in attics and alley-way shacks and drew all manner of creative types. While he didn’t mention it, the Eagles spent a season here, perfecting their act, before hitting it big nationally. Now, it’s the reverse. Aspen’s creative sorts tend to be imported, Stone observed.
He also observed the homogenization of Aspen’s businesses. The resort once had a business called Aspen Spice and Tea, a unique, home-grown business. Now, the resort has businesses like Gucci. If high-end, they are by no means unique. They are found in many upscale locations.
Stone also observed that Aspen’s affordable housing program has, in effect, homogenized the resort. People who qualify are those who have essentially bought into Aspen. “You don’t get any outlaws that way,” he said, using the word delivered by Lamont, the moderator.
Is Aspen’s day done as an innovator? That would seem to be the assessment judging by the answers delivered when asked about the last really brand new innovation from Aspen. The panelists fumbled.
The X Games? Well, really, that started at Crested Butte and was fostered by ESPN.
The Pro Bicycling Challenge? Well, the big money underlying it has Aspen lineage, which may mean that Aspen will always have a spot on the tour. But it’s hardly an Aspen thing.
Food and Wine Classic? It’s been around a quarter century.
The panelists should have been in the chautauqua tent the evening before, at a special session devoted to the words and work of Randy Udall. Udall had been the first executive director for the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a group created by former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling and others during the early 1990s.
From that group came the idea of what was, in effect, the first carbon tax in the United States, in which people with large homes or expansive energy demands, such as caused by outdoor swimming pools, are required to invest in renewable energy or pay an in-lieu fee.
That was a big idea, instituted in 2000. Another big idea was the Canary Initiative, the climate-change manifesto adopted in 2005.
One of the goals coming out of that plan, a hydro plant in Castle Creek, has not turned out well, at least so far. Some critics say it was flawed in that it was fundamentally nostalgic, in that it sought to reassemble what had served Aspen during the first 75 years of its existence.