Bringing a taste of Denver to Brush Creek

Last week, one of the big reasons for what seems to be a general visceral negative reaction to the proposed housing project at Brush Creek Road finally hit me. It is not the intention to put some workforce housing on the property—it is the overall mainstream feel of the proposal and where it leads Crested Butte as a funky mountain town. It doesn’t fit with what this place represents. It brings to our front door a taste of what most of us consciously left.

The negative reaction to this 240-unit plan comes from a broad swath of people who might even benefit from the project: business owners; workers who could move there; or second-home owners who might not have to wait a month to get their house painted because of lack of workers.

Aside from the obvious issues of huge density in a relatively small space, the water and sewer issues, the strange idea of selling the developer the public land at a discount before any plan is approved and the blundered political roll-out of the plan, there is a major philosophical problem with the idea: It is what we came here to get away from. It feels like any other apartment project you might see while driving into Denver on Highway 285. Add to that that it will be the island “where the worker’s live” and it goes against the basic philosophy we have espoused for a long time at the north end of the valley.

The Gatesco proposal has 30 apartment buildings ranging in size from 4,000 square feet to three 24-plexes at 25,000 square feet housing hundreds and hundreds of people. The only thing missing is a giant “Now Leasing—Move-In Specials” sign.

We proudly live and visit here in the (admitted) bubble specifically not to be in the mainstream. We all enjoy the small town, quirky, high mountain village that is not like everywhere else. We appreciate our unique “built environment” that really is different from other places—even other mountain towns. We purposely look different. We purposely feel different. Choices made as a community the last several decades have kept it that way.

People who choose to live, visit or have a second home up here know it can be a challenge. There is the challenge of isolation, climate, and scale. Not everyone can cut it up here and most who do become fiercely protective of the character they believe helps define the place. Not only does Crested Butte—and I think of Crested Butte as Round Mountain north—not want to be like everyplace else, it doesn’t aspire to be like other mountain ski towns. Drive along I-70 by Frisco or Vail and you see the apartment projects “where the workers live.” It is obvious.

The local politicians and government experts touting this 240-unit project look at an affordable housing need and see a solution on paper. They legitimately see a way to address a public concern and put a check mark on the “to-do list.” That’s not a bad a thing but is single-dimensional. I think they are missing the feel, the intangibles that make Crested Butte what it is.

Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nothing happens in a vacuum and that is the case with the proposed Brush Creek project. Add to the equation the relative suddenness of dropping that many units and hundreds of potentially new people in that spot by 2019, and you have a shock to the system—the system in this case being the upper valley. Build what might as well be an Aurora apartment complex and you take a bite out of the workforce housing issue but peel away a good portion of what separates Crested Butte and the upper valley from the tourist-industrial mountain towns.

This is not an argument to not change the place. I advocate all the time for thoughtful changes that benefit those of us here now. The community school was a great addition. So was the North Face Lift, the new hiking and biking trails, the skate park, the RTA, the Verzuh annexation and other good things that have come with growth.

The underlying philosophical problem with this project is that it is a formulaic step that might look good on paper but is another step toward the gentrified mainstream. The Brush Creek project brings us closer to the Vails and Breckenridges we pride ourselves on not being. It is sort of like the somewhat surprising pushback from nearby businesses and neighbors about getting rid of some mud with a bit of pavement in front of a high-end Crested Butte restaurant. It sounds like such a good idea—until it isn’t. The lack of ownership opportunity for people to eventually buy in to the community is also a philosophical conundrum. And I’m not sure how the county Planning Commission reviews and takes into consideration such philosophy.

There have to be more creative and more organic solutions that feel like Crested Butte instead of the entrance to Denver. Smaller, more dispersed and phased-in solutions may not solve the issue—but I don’t think the affordable housing rental issue is solved with the Brush Creek proposal either.

A development of that size adds significant growth quickly. The scale is more appropriate for Littleton than Crested Butte or Skyland. A proposal this size at that spot is honestly not in keeping with the character of the place and would normally cause an uproar about its impact on the feel of the corridor as people approach Crested Butte.

If the mainstream is our goal, then we won’t have anything to separate us from the more generic mountain towns that also have great views but better chairlifts. I guess there is the fact that Crested Butte would still not be easy to get to—and that’s not a winning formula for anyone.

The developers submitted a revised proposal to the county last Friday afternoon and the county staff is evaluating it to verify that it is a complete application. The town of Crested Butte has scheduled a public work session on the project on Thursday, October 5—which is a full moon. My bet is the discussion will continue to be interesting.

—Mark Reaman

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