Avon contemplates use of old fire station for transit employee housing
Over the course of the two meetings, Council members and town staff have gone back and forth on the merit of using an existing asset to address housing needs
For the past two Avon Town Council meetings, the town has been evaluating a new housing solution that could potentially help aid regional transit authorities in hiring employees.
Council members and town staff have gone back and forth on the merit of using one of its existing assets — the old Avon Fire Station at 351 Benchmark Road — to aid in the employee housing crisis experienced across Eagle County.
Initially, this was an idea to help support a potential pilot program that would run free and frequent transit between Beaver Creek, Avon and Vail throughout the ski season. The idea, according to Town Manager Eric Heil, was that the property would help provide a housing option to hire the transit drivers required for the program.
However, since the idea was initially discussed at the Aug. 10 meeting, the pilot program was nixed due to a variety of challenges. Not only were the entities involved — which included Vail, Avon, Beaver Creek and ECO Transit — worried about hiring enough drivers to make it possible, but there were challenges in finding the buses needed and concerns over impacts to regular transit services.
“Every transit agency felt their priority was to be in a position to run the services that their respected communities had expected the transit agencies to run,” Heil said. “With the timing and the challenges of getting back to a normal season, there was some reluctance by every entity to be able to pull this off.”
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With the pilot program out of the picture, Heil communicated to the council that he no longer considers converting the old fire station into dorm-style employee housing was worthwhile.
“I thought it was worthwhile as part of getting transit from Beaver Creek to Avon to Vail for the winter, because I think that’s a huge improvement and step forward for regional transit — but without that, personally, I don’t know that I would prioritize that in our workload this fall,” he said.
However, when tearing down the fire station was presented as part of the town’s five-year Capital Improvement Project plan Aug. 25, the council expressed a desire to possibly continue forward with the project.
“I think that given the critical housing shortage that we are experiencing, I feel very uncomfortable just tearing this thing down with an uncertain future,” said Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes. “We could provide some affordable housing options for 14 human beings, who want to live and work here.”
Is it a money pit?
Tearing the building down has always been a part of the town’s plan, even when it was considering its use for the transportation pilot project.
At the Aug. 25 meeting, Town Engineer Justin Hildreth estimated that the cost of demolishing this building would be $750,000, with an additional $90,000 budgeted for future planning on the site. Additionally, Hildreth noted that the building is receiving an asbestos assessment; if asbestos is found, it could increase the demolition costs significantly. When asbestos was located at the old town hall building in Avon, it cost the town an additional $300,000 for the demolition, he said.
While the planning would occur likely next year, the demolition likely wouldn’t happen for a few more years, which led many council members to question the decision not to use it for affordable housing when the asset and land could be sitting vacant for years.
“I’m not suggesting that this is a long-term affordable housing development,” Smith Hymes said. “My thinking is not that we’re going to have people in there beyond three years. I was thinking it’s a three-year plan [by which time] we will have other housing things happening, we will have plans for this site in place.”
To make the building livable, improvements need to be made. The estimated cost for the remodel is $175,000 and would include minimal improvements to meet building code and make the rooms and common space rentable. This includes adding sprinklers on the ground floor, remodeling a bathroom, replacing missing doors and doorknobs, and adding minimal furnishing to the rooms and more.
“It would not be a luxurious place. I think the goal was not to make it embarrassing for the town to be renting it,” Heil said.
Going forward, the monthly costs to the town for cable, water, sewer, electricity and heat are expected to be around $1,200. The proposed rent would be $700 a month. One room may be rented at a discount or no cost to an on-site property manager or resident assistant. At the Aug. 10 meeting, Heil noted that with these numbers, the project could recoup its direct costs in about three years.
During the Aug. 10 discussion, Council Member RJ Andrade questioned whether the town was ready to be a landlord, especially at this property.
“It’s an imperfect situation and I do want to make sure that we’re prepared for that, because I do think it’s worth trying. But as someone who’s already been through it once, there’s some problems that you can’t solve and I just want to make sure we’re aware of that,” Andrade said.
Andrade spoke from experience; he managed and housed his employees in this building for three years. “It was horrendous. Management of it was worse than you ever could possibly imagine,” he said, adding that the struggle was making it a comfortable living situation for residents.
At the Aug. 25 meeting, Council Member Lindsay Hardy recommended the idea of a private partnership to take on the remodel and property management. However, Heil said that could be difficult given the state of the property.
“Part of the dilemma is, even for three years, we know there’s going to be some maintenance items we’ll have to do that are going to be an extra cost. And in about three years is where it’s going to need a new roof and some other things just to keep it going,” he said, adding that another entity likely would not want to take it on for a short amount of time. “It’s going to feel like a money pit that we’re never going to get ahead of.”
Giving it a good college try
Even with the building’s challenges, many of the council members expressed that the project could still be worth pursuing due to the immense need for housing.
“We’re at a crisis level for employees — everybody is hiring and there’s nowhere to live affordably,” said Council Member Chico Thuon.
While the transportation pilot project is no longer an option, there is still a need for transit employees across the county. According to Heil, Avon itself could hire five new drivers — and for any new drivers, “it would be an asset to have housing that we could offer.”
For the remaining available rooms, the town would potentially reach out to its regional transit partners to master-lease blocks of rooms for their new hires.
“I think if we did it, we would get it full with public employees,” Heil said.
Given these circumstances and the fact that the town has this asset, the council directed Heil to research if any other entities would be interested in taking on remodel and property management, as well as gauge interest from other regional transit entities and evaluate what it would look like for the town to take on the project itself. This information, Heil said, could be brought to the Town Council’s budget retreat in late September for evaluation.
“I just feel like we have to give it the good, ol’ college try before we say we’re going to tear it down,” Smith Hymes said.