A neighborhood for Aspen's 'middle' class

Developer tries to revive his community

  • Developer John McBride and architect RichSeedorf

    Matt Jenkins
 

ASPEN, Colo. - Just outside this famous mountain ski town, low-flying Gulfstream private jets make their final approach to the airport. From here, it's a short drive into the center of Aspen, where the average cost of a single-family home last year was $3.4 million. But across the road from the airport lies a new housing development called the North Forty, a homegrown attempt to carve out a local toehold for what developer John McBride is fond of calling "the middle-class heart of the community."

In Aspen's rarified air, the traditional distinctions between economic classes are a little skewed: The cost of a North Forty home still runs to several hundred thousand dollars at minimum. But this is Aspen, where not only the working class has trouble finding an affordable place to live, but the upper middle class has been bumped out, too.

The North Forty is McBride's bid to revive the spirit of the town's Old West Side and take on the resort-town takeover by second-home owners. It's also a project that has raised a few eyebrows in a town where affordable housing has been an issue for at least two decades.

"One of the best communities in the world"

When McBride, who is an HCN board member, moved to Aspen in 1966, he says, "It was truly one of the best communities in the world."

Now, there's a sprawling divide between the moneyed "upvalley" crowd, who live in Aspen, and members of the middle class, who are forced to commute to work from the downvalley towns of Basalt and Carbondale.

"Their choices (are) either live downvalley or live in government housing here," says McBride.

An October stroll through Aspen's Old West Side, the former haunt of McBride's dispossessed middle class, feels like a walk through a ghost town. Gardeners tend to the lawns, but the homeowners are conspicuously absent.

McBride, who now lives about 20 miles outside of Aspen on what he calls the "Lost Marbles Ranch," saw the change firsthand. Old Aspen, he says, was a rough-and-tumble mountain town where everyone had a skiing habit.

"Suddenly, with the wealth of the '90s, people who had too much in the stock market decided to diversify their portfolios by buying real estate here," says McBride. That newly arrived wealth profoundly transformed the town's character: Hardware stores were replaced with art galleries and fur shops as well-heeled part-timers set off a flight of the locals.

McBride had his own hand in Aspen's transformation: He helped develop the nearby ski-resort town of Snowmass, and he's the developer of the Aspen Business Center, a 28-acre development that's now home to about 180 businesses. But he's also intrigued by growth and environmental issues; he sponsors a yearly Worldwatch Institute conference in Aspen, and in 1994, he dispatched his son on a West-wide mission to find out what made a good community.

"The best communities he found were where people had a lot of trust," says McBride. "They do deals on handshakes and leave their keys in the car."

When McBride was finished building the business center, he started thinking about how to build that trust in Aspen. He still had a 22-acre undeveloped lot that he planned to use for more of the business center. "But I began to have the feeling that a business park all by itself is the wrong zoning idea," he says.

In 1997, McBride started moving forward with an idea for a housing development that would give the middle class a place in Aspen again and add life to the business park. No second-home owners would be allowed to live in the development. That wasn't a new idea - there are other resident-only developments in Aspen - but McBride had much more specific criteria. Only people who had already lived in the area for at least three years could build in the North Forty, and McBride set a 4 percent yearly appreciation cap and 2,200 square-foot living-space limit on each house. There are no restrictions on potential buyers' income or assets. Other than a general set of design guidelines, McBride left much of the house design in the hands of each homeowner.

"The places I like are where lots of people have been the creators of the place," says McBride, who was inspired by nearby Crested Butte's homegrown, funky hodgepodge of styles. "Having the opportunity to (do that) somehow encourages them to put down deep roots."

McBride seems to have met a need: When the lots went on the market in the spring of 2000 at an average cost of $117,000, all 59 sold within two months.

High-end affordable housing

On a walk through the neighborhood in October, McBride's collaborator, architect Rich Seedorf, smiles broadly as he points out house porches that front the pedestrian walk. "They give you a sense of privacy," he says, "but it's compact enough that you can carry on a conversation with your neighbors."

Seedorf, it turns out, lives in the North Forty himself. "Mine was the first hole in the ground," he says.

Keith Howie, a partner in the architectural firm with Seedorf, is finishing his house. He used to live downvalley in Basalt, he says, and suffered the daily commute. "Being able to walk to work," says Howie, "is like a dream in Aspen."

The neighborhood already has a crazy-quilt character that, McBride hopes, will ultimately be more than the sum of its parts: there are Victorian-style houses, Cape Cod-style ones, and even a log-cabin/modernist fusion house, all set along a park-like walk.

McBride says that people are building community as they build their homes: "There's a lot of bartering going on - I'll paint your home if you plumb mine." And that, he says, gives homeowners a sense of investment that goes beyond just plunking down the money for a new house.

"This is our shot to live upvalley," says Dick Byrne, a building contractor, father of two, and 15-year Aspen resident who's building his own house here. "I've been salting away pieces and parts for it for years."

But Donna Thompson, a property manager who bought a lot with her husband and started construction, says living in the North Forty isn't feasible for people who aren't particularly well-heeled or in the building trades. "This house of ours was going to end up costing $800,000," she says. High costs - increased by their dependence on contractors - forced the couple to resell and move out.

Cost is one reason the project has drawn skepticism in Aspen, where the government has worked to provide affordable housing since the late '70s and where every new development must include an affordable housing component.

"North Forty's market is professional people," says Cindy Christensen, the county housing authority's operations manager. That's an important niche, she says, but the town's real affordable housing needs lie elsewhere. "The need for lower (cost) one-bedroom and studio apartments here is unbelievable."

It's clear that the North Forty represents the high end of affordable housing. Costs for homes, including lots, in the North Forty run from about $262,000 to as much as $800,000. Christensen says that prices in the county's other resident-only housing developments run from $250,000 to around $600,000, while the maximum sales price for income-restricted government affordable housing is $296,200.

But McBride says it's still important to offer the middle class a chance to reclaim what was once their town, too.

"The middle class can't afford the million-dollar homes and they're excluded from the low end. They're just abandoned, and they have to move downvalley," says McBride. "To me, that group of people give a community its permanence, its life and its character."

McBride is quick to say that he doesn't see the North Forty as anything more than itself: It's not intended as a model for other developments in Aspen or any other Western resort towns. But it is an attempt to fight both the displacement of the locals by second-home owners and that phenomenon's tendency to catalyze sprawl.

"Almost no place in the West has dealt with these issues," says McBride, noting that the problems are especially acute in resort towns. "Growth is inevitable. These places are attractive, and people want to come here."

Matt Jenkins is HCN's assistant editor.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Aspen Business Center/North Forty office, 970/925-2102;
  • Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, 970/920-5050.