by James A. Bacon
According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.
Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?
In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.
Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.
The inter-mountain west has many popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.
Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.
One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.
While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.
Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading