Monday, March 30, 2015

Split the Baby, letter to the editor

We need to start again.

There are 3 candidates left for the Wheeler Executive Director job. 

There are good reasons for searching outside your residential box. 1. You're looking for a rainmaker- someone who can bring more money into the organization because you've already tapped the nearest veins dry. 2. You're looking for someone who is connected to a wider Performing Arts Community and can bring in fresh talent.  3. You're looking for someone who can see your establishment with a fresh eye and take it on a new more dynamic path. The 3 remaining candidates don't hit any of these points. 

I am disappointed, and somewhat incredulous, that of the 80 applications HR boiled it down to these three; but lest we forget HR is familiar with searching for government management, not performing arts management. Each metier has it's own special zeitgeist and having  professional in HR who understands the performing arts is asking far too much. An Artistic Director who would make it past HR…. Joe Papp?  Zelda Fichhandler? Beverly Sills? John Crosby? Errrr…. No. "Creatives" don't make it past HR.

Which brings me to the point. Searching for a single person who has both the talent to wrangle a Performing Arts venue and navigate local governance is hopeless. Government run and owned theaters are a European phenomenon not an American one. The best USA born and bred Performing Arts Management professional is a wizard with budgets and fundraising - they need to answer to their Board and keep the patrons happy with a steady flow of talent and magic -  they are passionate- they may have bouts inspiration bordering on madness, but they do not sweat. What they do not need to do is  swim the murky waters of City Bureaucracy and City Council. There is nothing which can crush passion faster than bureaucracy. Finding someone who can manage both Artists and Politicians  is highly unlikely. At the salary offered… well…. it would take a bolt of lightning… dancing on a pin … during an eclipse… illuminating a flock of flying pigs… oinking in time to Les Miserables.

If we're committed to searching inside the USA, split the baby in two. Search for an Artistic Director who manages the smooth running of a theatre which accommodates tours and local non-profits. Search for an Executive Director who manages the interface with local government.  Search for two different people.

We might also take a long hard look closer to home… there may be people who could bring a fresh eye and fresh talent who just don't want to deal with City Hall (shocking as that is).  Give an Performance Arts Management professional  a bureaucrat who can take the burden of City politics off their shoulders and they may actually consider applying for the job. We have some impressive and passionate talent in this valley- they all know City Hall- and they're not idiots.

Updated April 3rd- Gena Buhler from Vail has been named Executive Director of the Wheeler. Best of luck Ms. Buhler.

Genius Loci

Mind, Body, Spirit that's "The Aspen Idea". 

There's a lot to unpack out of that but let's just go back to the title of this post "Genius Loci". Genius- in the original- isn't talent or extraordinary ability- it isn't even the popular "expertise in one field" or the rather apt Neils Bohr definition of an "Expert"  these are all devolutions of the original. Perhaps Genius is too pagan an idea.

Genius is spirit. It can be the spirit of a place, the spirit of an idea, the heart and soul of something. If you are touched by the spirit you are touched by Genius.  Genius is being "inspired", inhaling in the essence.

One afternoon in 1968 we drove into Aspen and there was a double rainbow hanging over Silver Queen.

That is what happens to those of us who fall in love with Aspen. We are possessed by the Genii of the place.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Aspen Public Radio town hall meeting, letter to the editor- updated- updated again

"Interpretation" if you take nothing else away from Wednesday's "Keep Aspen, Aspen" Aspen Public Radio town hall meeting keep that one word in mind "interpretation". Let's just pick one example…there were several.. but let's just do one. Current City Council member Ann Mullins said that there had been no variances granted for the Molly Gibson. Former Mayor and would be Councilman again Mick Ireland came back with chapter and verse how the Molly Gibson had been granted a variance with it's FAR. Councilwoman Mullins replied that the Molly Gibson straddled two zones- one residential and one lodging and that the code was up to interpretation depending on which zone you chose.  

If you've read even a small portion of the 524 page code… wait…let's do one better…  here you go:

 "Permitted uses are those land uses which are consistent with other land uses in the same zone district in which they are located and which have been designated as permitted uses for the applicable zone district in Chapter 26.710."  bit like wading through treacle in cement overshoes isn't it?

But what do you do when the proposed project straddles more than one zone?

Well, let's toddle off to 26.710 .022  paragraph B. subsection a. "The use shall be developed by… applying the more restrictive of each requirement." Okay  sounds definitive …but…wait a moment… subsection b. says "The only exception shall be when the area… designated with the ..higher density constitutes more than 75% of the entire land area of the parcel."

Okay- time to take a field trip to the Molly Gibson with a theodolite. 

Ye gads I want more of this don't you?  Errr…didn't I elect someone else to do all of this? How much am I paying for City Government again? Remind me? Oh yeah,  one.  hundred.  million.  dollars.

Follow up: Mick Ireland replied on Facebook citing variance requests in the Molly Gibson, I asked Mick to leave a comment or for permission to copy and paste his response here and have not received an answer yet.  If you're a zoning junkie- please go to Facebook and look up Mick's response. 

Here- posted with permission is Mick's response: "A review of the public record contradicts the claim that variances were not involved in recent approvals. With the exception of the Sky Hotel, which withdrew requests for variances, both the Molly Gibson and Base1 Lodge requested and were granted variances on final approval as was the Hotel Aspen.
In fact, three projects (Hotel Aspen, Molly Gibson and Base 1) received a total of 20 variances including five that are significant and which referendum One seeks to limit, The documented variances are summarized in a table attached hereto and as follows:

Hotel Aspen: The original proposal was for four free market units and lodging. Both the lodging and free market homes were in excess of allowed floor area, cumulative floor area and unit size. The final approval was for three free market homes with one of them reduced in height. The final approval included 36,350 square feet, total, 8,050 above floor area allowable and 1,300 feet more than allowed under Special Review. Neither of staff’s recommendations for bringing the project into compliance were followed. The maximum unit size without TDRs is 2,000 sf by code - this approval grants a variance allowing the units to be much larger than 2,000 sf - up to 3,500 - and allows the three FM units to exceed code to exceed the code by one unit and a total of 4,400 feet of floor area.
Mayor Skadron voted No on this project and asked, “How much does this exceed code?” He concluded, “It exceeds what code allows, it does exceed what code allows.”
Molly Gibson: The proposal requested 12 variances, of which only three are the concern of Referendum One. The project sought 26,959 sf of lodging space, 4,959 or 20% more than the zone district allows even with special review.
The free market component request was for 8,000 square feet, almost double the allowed 4,080 in R-6 zoning according to the staff memo (Exhibit A - PD - Project review Pg 4).
Both of these variances were granted.
Base 1. The applicant asked for $39,733 in fee waivers, calculation of the affordable housing requirement under the Lodge Preservation zone district at a lower rate and complete waiver of the 25.3 parking spaces required under the code.
The affordable housing requirement was either 2.19 or .99 units by staff calculation. Staff recommended using a “LP Overlay” calculation to lower the requirement to a single unit. This was a waiver since the property is not zoned LP Overlay though it could have been. Applicant agreed to pay at the lower rate.
Parking was reduced by council variance from 25.3 to 15 spaces."

Here's Mayor Skadron's reply on Aspen Public Radio:

I keep going back to the first time I heard "Zoning Junkie" it was only last week in a talk by Jeffrey Brown (hopefully this will go online soon). He was talking about "The Boston Miracle" reclaiming neighborhoods from drug violence. His point was he wasn't a "Zoning Junkie"- all he cared about was listening to people so everyone could live in a safe neighborhood. Amen to that. 

Stoop and roll

Driving home from lunch I saw a falcon stoop to kill a crow. I'm not sure what kind of falcon, we have several here, peregrine and prairie,  and I'm not a good enough birder to tell which at a distance but a falcon's stoop is unmistakable. The falcon dove and missed. It carried such prodigious speed that it immediately swooped upwards in a roller coaster loop until it was completely inverted and then did a flip to right itself. Meanwhile the crow was flapping for all it was worth to get as much distance as possible between crow and falcon. As they were disappearing out of sight I saw the falcon, now straight lining behind the crow, getting closer with each flap of it's sharp sharp wings.

I doubt the crow will be lucky a second time today

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

That which you do for me….

Well, that's another 90 TED talks wrapped up in Vancouver last week. Sitting back and trying to sift through there are a few sharp pointy rocks which stick out of the sand dunes.

The one I keep going back to is "That which you do for me…. which you do without me…. you do to me." Those were the words of Pastor Jeffrey Brown He was the last speaker in the "Just and Unjust" session which started with Monica Lewinsky. Sure it was a talk about rebuilding a community devastated by gang violence but leave off the last part of that and what you have is "rebuilding a community" that's the heart and something which touches all of us.

Which brings me back to how the week started- at the Aspen Institute with "Athens to Aspen" Our readings were Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and Robert Frost's poems for the Kennedy inaugural "Dedication" and "A Gift Outright". The obvious question : what do any of these have to do with each other?

Simple answer, hubris.

Frost is full of it  from Dedication:

" They are our wards we think to some extent 
For the time being and with their consent, 
To teach them how Democracy is meant."

"The land was ours before we were the land's"

Manifest Destiny from Vietnam to land management, hubris pure and simple.  (Yeah, want to talk about "entitlement"?)

Follow this with Willa Cather's languid poem to the Southwest with it's oh so easy benevolent Catholicism and you're digging at a  deeper root. There is our Archbishop being very Sun Tzu like,  water taking the easiest path.

His mission is to convert, ever so gently to convert … The wide New Mexico sky seduces you into forgetting and blood disappears beneath the sand.  (Man, do I want breakfast at Tia Sophia's after reading this)

These are both poems in praise of  the will of the Western mind. 

Do we choose stillness and patience sitting quietly in a Pascalian empty room where you wait for the answers to fall like gentle rain? Or do we choose the more active path and insert ourselves into the story? Obviously, the Darwinian answer is "both". 

But, and this is a big but, the endgames between active and passive are quite different.  The core of that difference I believe is  what his holiness the Dalai Lama expresses so well. It is "us and them"

How do we get beyond something as basic as our tribal tendency to separate into groups?  That's pretty deep in our reptile brains- how many seasons of Suvivor now? Just sayin' 

So, let's forget about trying to become one big group which strives towards the blissfully undefined common good because that ain't gonna happen. Even when we come together because of an exterior threat it's not long before we drift apart again (witness the US Congressional Kumbaya moment after 9/11 and look at it now).  Let's start with the little things- like inclusion.  Let's start with the little things- like listening. Acknowledge the difference. Don't try and change it. Learn from it. 

 "That which you do for me…. which you do without me…. you do to me."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Referendum 1, letter to the editor

Quoting the flier for  the Aspen City Charter Referendum "Keep, Aspen, Aspen":

"All too often, city council is pressured to bend the rules because the  applicant is a nice person, a long time local or otherwise virtuous."

Really? That's how the "Keep Aspen, Aspen"  sees the history of Code Variances in Aspen?

Let's ask the Moss family who tried to expand the Aspen Inn with a balanced ratio of open space to building space. They were monkey wrenched by Council into bankruptcy and foreclosure. In return we got the Saint Regis and Grand Aspen both of which are exponentially larger than the Moss Cantrup plan and have no open space. Next ask the DePagter's about trying to renovate the Holland House. They asked for 9 more rooms. Six years of permit requests later they gave up and sold. Six months after that the new owners bulldozed and we drifted to the "shoot the puppy" years of development proposals which make 9 more moderately priced rooms look damn good in the rear view mirror. For real heartbreak talk to the Paas family. The Limelight is the poster child which Council uses to show the ideal mix of Community gathering space and Commercial yet it was the ping pong permit stipulations from Council which stretched the construction time and the financing to the  breaking point and crashed the project face first  into the Great Recession. The Paas sold to SkiCo. Now SkiCo is replicating the Limelight model, which should properly be dubbed the "Paas Plan",  as a template for other community conscious ski resort hostelries

All of these families helped build Aspen during the "non-billionaire" years. All of these families wanted to "Keep Aspen, Aspen" and build a home for their families and their future. No one gave them "special treatment". These long time locals  were pummeled by permits until they broke. Special treatment was reserved for the ones who swept up after them- the developers with endless resources, lawyers, investors, wads of cash and tons of time.

The more difficult you make refurbishment the more you kill our middle class long time local and create a vacuum ripe for the very type of development you're trying to stop. Endless requests for Code variances  are clear indication that the Code is broken. Fix the code. 

Please vote NO on Referendum 1.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The proposed Wheeler Opera House Annex-updated

This is in response to an article in the Aspen Daily News about a proposed Wheeler Opera House Annex

Well I'm disappointed. I can't hide that. I'm very disappointed. The proposal may be "shovel ready" but the main purpose seems to be more office space instead of supporting our Performing Arts Community or any Community for that matter.

I've outlined the continuing Performing Arts Center follies in a previous post  and I'll stand by that. I firmly believe Aspen can become a Performing Arts powerhouse but not by adding more office cubicles. It's a quick way to spend the $28 million in the Wheeler RETT fund so that no-one else poaches it but it does little else.

Some problems:

1. We already have a "black box" theatre.

2. Most "black boxes" get one set of seating which rarely gets changed for the simple reason that changing stadium seating needs a lot of time and labor and that costs money- more money than the average small theatre has to spend on labor. The other consideration is that an swiss army knife concept to theatrical production needs storage. You need storage for all those other configurations. The rule of thumb is 3x the storage space as the performance space.

3. Putting a theatre in the basement means a lot of public stairs and an ADA entrance. Once you've done that you've cut into your precious seating to the point of insolvency.

4. For pities sake if you want people to know you have a theatre in the basement you don't make them walk through offices to get there. This is prime box office store front space not prime copier machine space.

5. This does not offer any community gathering space - something which you will be bulldozing when those ready shovels start digging in the pocket park next to the Wheeler. At very least  you need to replace the park you're demolishing.

Here are plans of a proposal which will work.

1. This plan gives more wing space to the backstage at the Wheeler. The new lift gives easy access to the 3rd story and additional storage effectively doubles the wing space for performance scenic elements.  Refurbishment of the Wheeler backstage should include modernizing the arbors, audio and lighting.

2. A second smaller performance space gives  single performer touring shows and cutting edge experimental production a venue with the same coveted central Aspen location. This will free up the larger Wheeler stage for bigger touring shows and for longer running local productions. The increased variety of performance arts in a central location will reinforce the Aspen core value of diversity.

3. Using the Annex Theatre roof as a public garden increases the social networking value of the Wheeler complex. This also allows the view from Wagner Park to remain consistent with greenery masking the stage right wing addition. Sight lines are shown on "Plate #3 Wheeler Annex Patio".

4. The new Annex provides "pocket shops" for basic production needs. This is not sufficient for productions to be built in Aspen;  but it is sufficient to provide repair and maintenance on site for incoming tours. Backstage support facilities on site and in town allow for educational opportunities in the theatre arts. This supports a variety of interests in our younger citizens and cultivates a new generation of performing arts enthusiasts. 

5. This is a preliminary proposal and is only intended as a starting point for discussion.  Consultants who contributed include Glen Boyette (34 year production supervisor for AOL Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting), Isabel Rubio (award winning wardrobe manager and costume designer) and Allan Trumpler (Art Director on numerous Feature Films, Scenic Artist for Broadway and senior instructor of Film, Theatre and Video production for the University of Colorado Denver). Their expertise gives a fresh viewpoint which emphasizes basic functionality. It is highly recommended that Wheeler staff members and all the Performing Arts organizations in Aspen comment on this proposal to determine if it speaks to their specific needs.


No architects or engineers were consulted for this proposal. The design addresses production issues alone. Should the City decide to proceed with this design structural and code issues will certainly effect many of the items in the proposal. However, the 5 goals mentioned above should remain the ultimate goals. First, a more functional Opera house capable of hosting larger and more modern productions. Second, an additional smaller space which serves the double duty of allowing for a more intimate theatrical experience and freeing the Wheeler Main Stage for larger productions. Third, incorporating a public green space for both artists and audience where they can meet, converse and dream. Fourth, supporting Performing Arts education in our local community. Fifth, inviting everyone into the conversation. The Performing Arts are a collaborative process. That is our strength and it is to that strength we should play.

I paced the lot and it's 40' so here is the same idea with another 10' of width. This also highlights the inherit problem with the "black box" concept- you need to store all the different seating/staging somewhere…

All comments welcome.

Friday, March 13, 2015

DaDa at City Hall, letter to the editor

Aspen is a town where one vote can make a difference, or at very least  get you into a runoff, so I take my responsibility as a voter seriously. After all, City Council is spending $100 million dollars a year on my behalf so the choices offered had better be more appealing than giving me back my share of that $100 mill along with my food sales tax refund (FYI that would be about a $15.5 K per resident refund). 

City Council is basically a management and oversight position.  Management with vision is a balancing act between practicality and risk.  

Why is our code book thick enough to inflict blunt force trauma? Why does our zoning map look like an order of spotted dick without custard? Why are building heights like a giant plinko board , 42 feet, no 28 feet, no 50 feet where will the height restriction bounce next?  What's the ratio of messy vitality to floor area? Which file cabinet has the wind power contract?  If a parking meter fails in a forest do we only lose half the money?  Why did  one of our planners when asked if we could change the zoning  respond  "I'd rather wake up a bear"?

There is a certain DaDaist quality to City Council meetings. I wouldn't  be surprised to see a melting clock and a man with a rhinoceros head ringing a 2am gong.   

When we have  3 hours of public comment on a murphy bed for the cemetery we have a government entrenched in the Surreal. Our surfeit of cash has allowed us to duck out of reality.

That's what I'd like on City Council, a Realist. Convince me that you can take the helm on our 15 department bureaucratic juggernaut. For instance they could put all 15  department heads without a 80% approval rating from their staff on 3 month probationary notice …. but hey- that's a management technique… no politician wants to purge the bureaucracy…. they'd rather wake up a bear.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The intent of infill, letter to the editor

The word "infill" is being flung about as an invective by proponents of the City Charter Amendment  (the ballot initiative which would force building variances to a popular vote). Is infill evil or is the way we have interpreted infill the problem? 

Infill is one of the strategies of "Smart Growth". Smart growth is a middle line between all out no holds barred frothy mouthed rabid development and the implacable phalanx of no growth stone faced NIMBYs. Smart Growth incorporates walkable neighborhoods, slamming the door on urban sprawl, mixing  residential and commercial uses within zones  while preserving open space and farmland. 

Infill isn't only a way of countering urban decay and traffic congestion;  it's a way of increasing density in one area to allow open space in another. 

So why is "infill" a dirty word in Aspen? What follows is a personal opinion.

Did we use vacant land in the City core for infill? No.
Did we replace decaying unmaintained buildings for new vibrant community oriented buildings through infill? No. 
Did we promote diversity by intermingling low cost residential housing with commercial downtown real estate through infill? No.
Did we encourage spaces for small start up businesses through infill? No.
Did we increase our open space through infill? No.
Did we decrease our traffic congestion through infill? No.
Have we improved the quality of life of our citizens through infill? Hmmm…that depends on how much you miss those 'Stube waffles  at the joiners table.

Aam Cafe


Yet these are all the goals of infill and "Smart Growth". We chose to keep the "build" part of the strategy and ignored the "why" we build and "what" we build part of the strategy. Why did we do that? It couldn't possibly be because "build" makes quick bucks and all the other goals cost time, political capital and money.

This is what we do; we forget the intent of the rules we impose upon ourselves and then we cry foul. Pushing responsibility for 524 pages of land use code onto the voting public will not solve the problem. Holding our Representatives accountable to the intent of the code, that just might work.