Friday, November 15, 2019

Start fresh with Brush Creek and lose the attitude

Could it be that after three years we might be done writing about the Corner at Brush Creek affordable housing proposal and all the drama that comes with it—or at least this iteration? It should become official the day after Halloween so I suppose, considering the timing, it could rise from the grave but we’ll see.

If the deadline lapses and no deal is struck between the developer and one of the towns by the end of the week, we as a one valley community can either learn from the demise of the situation and see opportunity to start fresh with a goal toward consensus, or we can keep spitting attitude. I prefer opportunity to phlegm, but already hear some attitude flying.

The big reason the Brush Creek affordable housing project appears to be dead is simple: lack of trust and clouded perception that wouldn’t clear. Unlike some people apparently believe, it’s not because people in the north end of the valley don’t want affordable housing up here. It’s not because the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte do whatever they can to squash workforce housing projects. It’s because trust was lacking between the “partners” and real collaboration was not explored.

Frankly, the developer, his representatives or individuals on the various land ownership boards (and staff) have collectively pissed off the last four mayors and many council reps of the two north valley towns. The county and developer have at times felt unfairly attacked. That hasn’t helped smooth out a major project that would inevitably have some issues—but issues that in a good working partnership could be worked out.

There is also the issue of general trust and attitude between the two ends of the valley. County commissioner John Messner last week made a quip that could be interpreted as residents in the north end of the valley would prefer that local workers be housed near Gunnison instead of Crested Butte. “Even though it’s controversial to actually build anything in the north end of the valley that has the words ‘affordable housing’ around it, I think we need to not just focus our efforts on the south end of the valley from an affordable housing standpoint,” he said matter-of-factly at a public meeting with representatives of the Valley Housing Fund. That’s a fair concept with poor reasoning. I don’t think he pointed a finger north in anger but rather in misperception.

But that misperception encourages others with a simple view of a complex situation to do things like encourage the county commissioners to go out like Matt Foley, and “grab the world by the tail, and wrap it around and pull it down and put it in their pocket!” They might suggest the commissioners show those snobs in the north end of the valley how to get housing up there by purposefully ignoring the failed, snooty arguments of the north valley and just put it on their (not our) county-owned land across the highway without listening to the neighbors and nearby elected officials. That sounds like a great idea for improving relationships and accomplishing positive results.

Part of my job is to call out what I see as public nonsense. Other times I feel compelled to defend those doing good things. I get to do both in this case. Affordable housing didn’t start with and it won’t end with the Corner at Brush Creek.

Let’s take a factual look at those two north end municipalities governed by people who find it too controversial to build anything up here that has the word ‘affordable’ around it…

By the end of this year in the town of Crested Butte there will be about 300 affordable deed-restricted units in place, or about 25 percent of the town’s total housing stock. There are 31 affordable housing units currently under construction right now at a cost of more than $7 million. Seventeen of those will be completed by February, with 14 to be finished by next summer. The town has 10 rental units for their employees with another scheduled to start next spring. Crested Butte has spent about $2.5 million subsidizing tap fees to make more units affordable. A primary long-term goal of the Town Council is to get 75 percent of the housing in town occupied by long-term residents and get the deed-restricted numbers up to 30 percent.

The town has partnered with local high school students in two partnerships by providing land, tap fees, waiving all fees and providing professional expertise to get affordable houses built.

Crested Butte voters approved a tax on short-term rentals with the money going toward affordable housing. Crested Butte contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the 30-unit affordable housing complex Anthracite Place, and one of the first affordable housing projects in Crested Butte was a mobile home community at the entrance to the town. The council is currently banking more land as part of the Slate River annexation to provide an additional 50 to 70 units in Crested Butte with a mix of rental and for-sale units.

Mt. Crested Butte has 76 affordable deed-restricted housing units in the town. The council and staff are working with a private developer to build another 22 “for sale” units in the Homestead subdivision next summer. Work has begun on how to plan the North Village project that will certainly include affordable housing units. No specific numbers have been discussed but the town has 17 acres as part of that project. All indications are that the town, the nearby neighbors and the North Village developer have already been working cooperatively to put together a good project that will include significant housing for local workers. Government officials describe the North Village project as a good product that will be a positive for the developer and the community. What a concept?! The council has also put a ballot issue to its voters that will tax short-term rentals, including hotel rooms, to garner income earmarked for countywide affordable housing.

Based on actual numbers, there obviously is no controversy or hesitation to build or pursue affordable housing in the north end of the valley. It may not look exactly like some living south of Almont might want but to insinuate the north end of the valley is shirking its duty to bring in housing for the local workforce is waaaaay off the mark.

Look, the Brush Creek development can either end in shambles with the ruins of mistrust and anger being the foundation for a new project—or we can all take the proverbial breath and learn something constructive from the flawed process.

It seems to me that after three contentious years, the ceiling of what could be a good project at that particular site has been set. Why don’t the leaders who all extol the need and virtue of workforce housing come together and start anew? Put in the really hard work of collaborating from the beginning to come to a solution. Join together to apply for a slice of the newly available state Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) funds meant for such workforce housing projects. Use that money to engineer and implement infrastructure for an 85- to 150-unit development that can be phased in over time in partnership with a private developer. Start now to work with entities like CDOT to help fund a needed transit center and GOCO for a park for those who end up living there. I prefer such developments in the towns where services and amenities already exist and where an individual vote means more, such as at North Village, the Slate River annexation or Rock Creek in Gunnison. But when developing such a project away from a town, make it real and not simply an island of serfs with a roof over their heads.

Heck, if the Corner at Brush Creek developer can put up quality housing in Rock Creek as a concrete example of what that team can do, it would probably go a long way to erase some of the bad feelings of the last several years. Stop with the finger pointing.

Affordable housing is not simple and there is a bunch in the pipeline at the moment from every government agency at both ends of the valley. Successful projects balance a number of issues and what is right in one place is not automatically right in another. There is opportunity out there for quality housing that makes sense for everyone, even on that Brush Creek site. That won’t be accomplished by more division but rather through a new effort that will take an etch-a-sketch to the past couple of years.

A fresh opportunity is there if we want it—but we all have to be in it together. That is my hope. I don’t need to write more about good-intentioned people spitting at one another.

—Mark Reaman

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