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ISSUE #138: ANT ALERT - A Housing Boondoggle  10/23/2017

"But when you talk about destruction, 

Don't you know you can count me out..."
                    -- The Beatles, "Revolution"


With its roots in a 2007 land acquisition (think: city manager Steve Barwick and his infamous "land-banking" prowess), plans for a 28-unit multi-family subsidized housing project at 488 Castle Creek Road, adjacent to the Marolt Open Space, have reared their ugly head.  It was only a matter of time, and here we are, a decade later, facing an abomination at the entrance to Aspen.
Located inside the western edge of the city of Aspen boundary, on the NE side of Castle Creek Road, one half mile from the roundabout, sits a triangle-shaped .82 acre vacant site with a single curb-cut.  The site is currently zoned R-15A for moderate density, and technically exists today as two parcels (11,255 sf and 24,640 sf) zoned for a single-family home on each site (the result of a lot split during the 2006 ownership period). It is situated across Castle Creek Road from the Aspen Valley Hospital campus, as well as the Castle Ridge, Mountain Oaks, Water Place and Twin Ridge subsidized housing projects, and adjacent to the Marolt Open Space and Marolt Ranch Seasonal Housing (dorms) property.  Two-thirds of the property is a flat bench, and the remaining one-third is a steep slope (greater than 30 degrees, which precludes development).  The flat bench, comprising approximately one-half acre of usable land, is covered by man-made landfill.
There is an interesting and colorful chain of title to the property:
  • August 1982: Celia Marolt sold the property to JTEM Venture for $216,000
  • October 1987: JTEM Venture sold the property to Hodge Capital Company, which sold the property on the same day to Ted Koutsoubos for $310,000
  • February 1999: Ted Koutsoubos sold the property to Paul Anderson for $900,000
  • March 2006: Paul Anderson sold the property to Steel Partners Ltd for $2,825,000
  • October 2006: Steel Partners Ltd sold the property to WF Castle Creek LLC for $3,400,000
  • June 2007: WF Castle Creek LLC sold the property to the City of Aspen for $5,400,000
Surely you were following those numbers!?!? Note that in 8 short months between October 2006 and June 2007, WF Castle Creek LLC made $2 million (yes -- TWO MILLION DOLLARS IN 8 MONTHS) on their investment by selling to the land-banker with the public's housing fund checkbook, city manager Steve Barwick.  At press time, it is unclear whether an appraisal of the property's value was obtained prior to its acquisition, however, similar city "land-banking" purchases of that era were not subject to such oversight and controls.
Why the $2MM premium, you ask?  It appears this is just what the city did (does?) when it has the money and wants the land.  (Recall the notorious BMC West lumberyard purchase by the city in 2007.)
In partnership with a private developer, the city proposes:
  • 28 (10 x 2-bedroom and 18-1-bedroom) deed-restricted rental units
  • 29 parking spaces, in the front of the complex, just off Castle Creek Road
  • 3-story building above grade with partially buried lower level below
  • L-shaped configuration
  • Maximum height 42'3"
  • Total building floor area 24,183 sf 
At first blush, 28 units totaling just over 22,000 sf may not sound all that offensive.  On its face, it's not. But let me put it in context. Consider that these 28 units will be packed onto roughly one-half acre -- a preposterous density equivalent to over 50 units per acre!  Nowhere has there been an apartment project in Aspen or Pitkin County, whether subsidized or free market, with such density -- yet alone anything that exceeds 15 units per acre! And you'd be hard pressed to find such a development with garden level units anywhere between Aspen and Denver!
Pictures speak louder than words. Check out this preposterous density!! (Is this Aspen or Manhattan??)

(Note: the original proposal was for 24 units, but somehow this recently grew to 28, likely to make the per-unit land cost look a little better.  Alas, it's still $200K per unit!!)
The gross lot area of 35,895 sf less 675 sf (50% of the 20-30 degree slope) less 11,170 (100% of the 30+ degree slope) creates a net lot area of 24,050 sf.  The proposed project's site coverage (footprint) is proposed to be 6966 sf, 19.4% of the gross lot area; 29% of the net.
The subsidized housing complexes in the immediate neighborhood average just 6 units per acre and have an average of 1.4 parking spaces per unit, with maximum heights of approximately 28'.
Furthermore, when a property within the city limits shares a boundary with Pitkin County, the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP) is very specific about residential development.  "Ensure city and county codes are consistent in the vicinity of city/county boundaries to prevent shifts in the character of neighborhoods, and encourage smoother cross-boundary transitions regarding house size and density," and, "control and limit the mass and scale of homes."  (FYI the zoning on the county side of the property is one house per every 10 acres.) 
See how the building is crammed into the NE corner of the parcel? The proposal features mere 5' setbacks from the property line on both the north and east sides.
  • The site, covered by man-made landfill comprised of "overlying silty-sandy gravel with cobbles and boulders" that, according to a city-commissioned geo-technical report, is between 4-5' deep, but "likely varies across the property." (It is widely believed to be at least 10' deep.)  Regardless, it is against city code to build on fill. Furthermore, the report unequivocally recommends that "the man-placed fill should be completely removed from beneath the proposed building area." (This raises another interesting consideration: if a multi-level structure is sited on top of existing fill, and therefore the proposed structure would measure forty to fifty feet in height from the natural grade underneath the fill as required by current code language, is this appropriate? Is this appropriate at the boundary of the Urban Growth Boundary??)
  • 29 parking places for 28 units??? That's one car per unit in a multi-family complex. A complete joke. And just where are those other cars going to park, because there ARE going to be more than 29 cars?!  On Castle Creek Road?? Right. (The city boasts that 29 spaces meets code requirements because it is "not below the minimum or above the maximum" spaces required. That may be true, but it's idiotic just the same.) 
  • Part of the rationale for so few parking spaces (aside from the fact that there isn't space for more) is a list of absolutely foolish "mitigation" elements that somehow are supposed to make it ok:
    • Transit access improvements
    • Trip reduction marketing / incentive program
    • Landscaping to improve the pedestrian experience
    • New bike path
    • Bike parking
  • The access to the site off Castle Creek Road is referred to as a "primitive drive that comes off the northwest of the property" by the engineering firm retained to evaluate the drainage at the property.
  • The proposal notes an architectural nod to the Bauhaus movement in Aspen in the 1940s and 1950s.  Yeah, right. Go over to the Aspen Institute campus and take a look at the very low density Bauhaus architecture there.  This comparison is patently ludicrous. 
For this proposal to become a reality, the city partnership must thankfully jump through some hoops.  They are requesting, among other concessions:
  • Merge the two parcels back into one
  • Re-zoning of the parcel from R-15A (moderate density residential) to AH/PD (affordable housing / public development)
  • Since the project is designed as a Public-Private Partnership between the developer and the city, the city is requesting a 50% fee waiver 
  • Consideration as a Major Public Project which means fewer approval meetings
  • City's portion exempted from the School Land Dedication fee and the Parks and TDM/Air Quality Impact fees
  • 10% increase in allowed site coverage from 6966 sf to 7663 sf (19% to 21% of the gross lot area)
  • 10% reduction in Open Space requirements; code requires 50% of the site area (18,104 sf); asking for 10% less (16,294 sf) 
  • 10% increase in floor area (from 24,183 sf to 26,601 sf)
  • 29 parking spaces to satisfy all parking requirements (code stipulates 38 but with some creative gerry-mandering they can subtract 1 to get to 37, so 29 is 78% of the requirement, above the 60% absolute minimum.)  
  • Waiver of any cash-in-lieu fee requirements that would otherwise be required and the parking deficit that would thereby be created, based on the surprising belief that there is a "strong likelihood" that those non-vehicle alternatives (above) will be embraced and utilized!
In its proposal to P&Z, the city partnership purports that the proposed development at 488 Castle Creek Road will: 
  • Provide a high level of taxpayer value.
  • Complement the fabric of the existing neighborhood.
  • Demonstrate considerations relative to increasing neighborhood density, such as access, parking, transportation and any other impacts.
  • Building height and bulk will be minimized and the structure will be designed to blend in to the open character of the mountain.
  • Minimize the impact on the natural landscape that is the gateway to the Castle Creek Road corridor. 
Seriously?!? This abomination is a complete rebuke of the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP), which states "We continue to support an Urban Growth Boundary where density is concentrated in the commercial core and gradually tapers to the boundary and rural area of the County."  Additionally, the AACP policies stipulate that the residential sector "protect the visual quality and character of neighborhoods by minimizing site coverage, mass and scale."  The arrogance of the proposal goes so far as to justify this project and its height, mass and scale by pointing out that neighboring Aspen Valley Hospital (yes, the HOSPITAL) is 4 stories tall (54') and the adjacent AVH housing is 3 stories (33' 6") tall and has no screening or buffering from Castle Creek Road, as if that is going to make us like it more!
The Castle Creek Valley is one of our last remaining areas of pristine wilderness.  Can you just imagine the hideous impact of such a blight, right as one passes by the hospital and heads up the valley?  Welcome to the Castle Creek wilderness, here's a really dense housing project. 
And lest I ignore the obvious questions of corruption... the terms of the acquisition of this parcel (circa 2007) and the inconceivable density of the proposed project reflect the arrogance and questionable ethics of our past AND CURRENT leadership. Steve Barwick (and his staff) work directly for our sitting mayor and council. They are most certainly well aware of this outrageous proposal, and ostensibly support it.
If you would like to review the 250-page application, please contact Hillary Seminick in the city planning office at  It was simply too big for me to link it here.

But, given this top-line overview of what the city has done and is trying to do, if you are inclined to stop this madness before it starts, please send an email reflecting your displeasure (disgust?) to Planning & Zoning and City Council today:

There is a site visit on Tuesday at noon and a special P&Z meeting this Tuesday at 4:30 in City Hall where the 488 Castle Creek application will be discussed.  If you are in town, please plan to attend and be prepared to voice your concerns to the commissioners.

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