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If you want it bad, you get it bad

Norman Bowles
Vail CO, Colorado

There are many issues confronting the Vail Valley and Eagle County, but probably none both so immediate and enduring as the lack of affordable housing. The lack of affordable housing is no longer confined to the low-income service workers. Today it affects professionals, such as medical staff at Vail Valley Medical Center or the teachers in the Eagle County school system.

Seven months ago, the Urban Land Institute announced that Eagle County was up the proverbial creek if 500 to 600 affordable units weren’t built each year over the next 20 years. We are currently facing a long-term shortage of somewhere around 11,000 units.

This problem did not happen overnight. We did not wake up one morning, only to find that suddenly there was no affordable housing in the valley. This problem that has been building steadily over the last decade. So who is at fault?

There are many reasons it has occurred, not the least of which is that the relatively wealthy baby boomer generation has been buying up the inventory of housing as second homes and retirement homes. Also, in a thriving home market, developers find it more profitable to build high-end homes than to build lower cost housing.

But the main reason is because of poor planning by our local governments and elected officials. Whether it was because of the lack of political will or an inability to act absent a crisis, the fact is a lack of early local government action has produced a crisis that will continue for many more years. Expect many more Vail Daily headlines over the next years spotlighting critical labor shortages caused by a lack of affordable housing.

Now that we are in the crisis, finally our political leaders are leaping into action. Eagle County commissioners have claimed it is their highest priority. Already their efforts are being devoted to new guidelines encouraging development of affordable housing. And, you can bet your paycheck their favorite developments are going to be those that include affordable housing.

There is a saying; “You want it bad; you get it bad.” And our elected county officials want affordable housing bad! Anything that has the label “affordable housing” attached to it is likely to be put on the “fast track” regardless of if there are negative consequences.

Therein lies the problem. County citizens, beware! When politicians act in the midst of a crisis, the consequences of their actions oftentimes overshadow the original crisis. The political reaction to Sept. 11 was a war in Iraq rather than a war on terrorism. The response to terrorists was the reduction of American civil liberties and the U.S. rejection of the Geneva Convention, the worldwide standard for treating prisoners of war. Rising oil prices resulted in expansion of oil and gas drilling into areas we held dear for their environmental beauty, not a big movement to encourage energy conservation. Although our affordable housing crisis is different in size and scope, our local politicians can easily make things worse in their effort to fix the problem.

Two projects are already before the county for consideration are bell-wethers. In Edwards, two large development projects, West End and the Edwards Condominiums, are proposing to include affordable housing as a component or adjunct of their respective projects. This article deals only with the West End project. (My next article deals with Edwards Condominiums.) West End is a project similar to Riverwalk in that it mixes commercial retail in with 185 residential units, of which 70 would be affordable housing units that this county desperately needs!

So what’s the problem? One minor issue might be the label “affordable housing” that the West End developers are using. They call a 600-square-foot studio selling for $258,000 or $420 per square foot, “affordable”. That is a higher price per square foot than Miller Ranch (which the county built as affordable housing), and more than most of the 800 homes in Homestead.

Beware! Not every project we see in this county bearing the label “affordable” will be what workers in this county consider to be affordable. And our county politicians won’t care, as long as they can claim credit for working to solve the crisis. Developers already know this, and it is a label developers will try to use to overcome community objections to their projects.

But price isn’t the problem. The issue is that the county wants to increase the population and building density to create the setting for more affordable housing. Edwards is one of their their targets because, unlike Vail, Avon, Eagle or Gypsum, it is not an incorporated town and therefore under the county’s jurisdiction. And Edwards already has a relatively high density.

The biggest problem in Edwards is traffic. Unlike Avon, Vail, or Eagle, there are no traffic circles. Just traffic lights. If you have ever tried to drive through Edwards during the morning or afternoon rush hours, traffic at the intersection of Highway 6 and the Edwards Spur Road is horrendous. During rush hour, it can take as long as half an hour to get from Arrowhead to the Edwards intersection. Traffic moving north or south through that intersection can take several changes of lights to clear the intersection. As development in the valley continues, the traffic in Edwards gets worse. And why? Poor county planning.

If affordable housing were not in the equation, the central issue with West End would be about the traffic. Although close in size to Riverwalk, which has four entrances/exits, West End will have only one. All West End traffic will have to exit west onto Highway 6, requiring a roundabout west of the project to allow people to make a U-turn so they can go east on 6. The West End’s developers estimate that the project will generate almost 2,600 vehicle trips daily, of which 332 and 277 will be generated during the morning and evening rush hours. This is a huge amount of traffic, and it doesn’t include other projects proposed in Edwards.

It might well constitute the tipping point for Edwards’ traffic. For those not familiar with the nature of traffic congestion, it doesn’t go from bad to worse to worse. The way freezing water goes from liquid to solid, traffic goes from heavy straight to unbearable gridlock. Nothing inbetween. Edwards is very close to that point ” at least during rush hour.

Business owners in Edwards beware! Urban planners in large cities will tell you that retail customers go with the easiest flow. If Edwards’ congestion gets too difficult, customers will simply bypass Edwards. There are just too many equally good shopping and dining alternatives elsewhere in this valley. Ask those business owners located next to Vail’s endless construction.

Affordable housing might be important, but not at the expense of the vitality of Edwards! The West End may offer “affordable” housing (or not so affordable), but there is a headache-size traffic problem that it is guaranteed to deliver as well. Lack of county foresight and planning got us into a mess. Let’s not make that mistake again. County commissioners, solve the traffic problem before trying to “pack them in!”

E-mail comments about this column to editor@vaildaily.com.


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