In the brilliant Talking Heads song (Nothing but) Flowers, David Byrne imagines a world where progress runs in reverse. Instead of taking us to a world where there is more human development, progress takes the singer back to the Garden of Eden, where “we caught a rattlesnake, now we have something for dinner.”
This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees.
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.
In a world where there are no more factories and what once was a parking lot is “now a peaceful oasis,” the singer is nostalgic. “I miss the honkeytonks,” he cries, “Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens.”
People in Telluride might not have to imagine a future that is “nothing but flowers.” We are busy creating one that is “nothing but condos” – condos, in this context, being like flowers, pretty but inert – and we could well experience it sooner than we think. Or at least those who are left will experience it since a big part of the community will be gone.
The Telluride Town Council put another nail in the coffin of that beleaguered portion of the community consisting of people who actually live and work in Telluride last week, when they voted narrowly not to approve a waiver that would have allowed an application for a hotel downtown to go forward. So instead of commerce on the last undeveloped commercial block in town, we will instead have residential development, which in Telluride today and likely into the future, means second homes. We have a different name for residential development that supports community, “affordable housing,” and one thing we know for certain about new condos in central Telluride is that they will be anything but “affordable.”
What was especially depressing watching last week’s meeting of the Telluride Town Council, was that two of the three councilors who voted to kill the waiver (it only took three, because a supermajority of five was required to approve it), claimed – with staggering incoherence – that they were doing it to protect the community. Kristen Permakoff said it was not community spirited of the developer to divide the community with a controversial application, completely oblivious to the fact that the division in the community that was exposed by the controversy is real and about something important. Jenny Patterson said the building just didn’t feel right, apparently not understanding that condos will occupy a building virtually identical to what the hotel would have occupied.
Even more galling is that both Patterson and Permakoff campaigned for their seats on council claiming they were pragmatic and realistic about economic sustainability. Clearly not.
One of the interesting things about bad land use decisions is that, after they go into effect, nobody can see what isn’t there. A land use decision to permit an ugly, inappropriate building is a blight nobody can miss. But a land use decision to prevent a better building or a good building is invisible. So if condos are built where the Hotel Ajax might have been, those condos will simply be a reality about Telluride for very long time. Who will look at the condos and think, “There isn’t a hotel there?”
Well, in truth, when I look at Telluride’s East Depot, I do think, “There isn’t a hotel there,” and if condos are in fact built where the Hotel Ajax might have been, I’ll think the same thing, but I may be unusual in this regard.
Like David Byrne, I will look at the condos and be nostalgic for the honkytonks, the missing bar that was planned for the rooftop at the Hotel Ajax and the visitors who are not shopping on main street and eating in local restaurants, but that’s a contrarian sentiment, which is part of David Byrne’s artistic brilliance and is also why “my side” has lost every major land use decision in Telluride since Lawson Hill was approved over twenty years ago. At this point, to lose another one, well, it’s a bummer, but hardly unexpected.
Since Lawson Hill, every major decision this community has made has been a step, wittingly or unwittingly, toward an Eden for the benefit of wealthy second homeowners and retirees, and some wealthy young families who choose Telluride as the optimal environment for child rearing, but many fewer people who own or work in local businesses. In the case of Thom Carnevale, who provided the third council vote to defeat the Hotel Ajax, that seems to be entirely intentional. Carnevale never pretended to be a friend of the tourist economy or of local workers. I think his vote was wrong, but it was coherent and consistent with all of his votes on council
Not so Patterson and Permakoff, who purport to be friends of the economy and working class. Both got tangled up in questions about the process of approving a General Waiver. They focused their attention on avoiding what they thought would be special treatment for a developer rather than on doing what was right for the community. Both somehow concluded that it was more important to defend a deeply flawed town approvals process than to prevent a terrible outcome. Both demonstrated a lack of vision that makes them unsuited to serving on council. I voted for both of them, but never will cast a vote for either one of them again.
Thanks to their action, unless something changes, the block where the Hotel Ajax might have been will be another inert, unproductive, and, frankly, depressing block in Telluride, a place for second homeowners to spend a few weeks a year, and not much more. (The required retail will be window dressing.) This will be Patterson’s and Permakoff’s legacy. In the mining era, the block would be named for them, the Patterson-Permakoff block, except that in that historic era blocks were named after businesses that brought economic activity to a frontier town. As we slouch toward Eden, it would be more appropriate to name the block for those who made it so economically unproductive and so it will always be the Patterson-Permakoff block to me, even if there is no plaque to commemorate their folly.
I hope I’m wrong. Maybe Telluride will be a better place as a second home haven or will somehow manage to retain a viable community of locals despite a declining bedbase. Maybe the tourist economy will thrive despite my fears. Maybe the Hotel Ajax will somehow be built despite the inability of our local government to act in the community’s best interests. Maybe the hotel won’t be built, but if it had been it would have been as awful as the projects’ opponents predicted. Maybe if the waiver had been approved it wouldn’t have been built anyway.
Maybe democracy worked in Telluride, as it should, by reflecting the will of the majority. Or maybe two well-intentioned members of council couldn’t tune out the loudest voices and got confused. In any case, a fateful decision has been made and it will shape the future of Telluride, for better or, more likely, for worse.