The Aspen City Council moved for a continuance on the town’s lodge-incentive program Tuesday, as members of the board said they need more time to digest three major items in the package.
Those items were: the possibility of four-story lodges, relaxation of affordable-housing requirements and increased allowance for free-market residential units. Long-range planner Jessica Garrow opened the discussion by telling the council that Aspen’s short-term bed base declined by 27 percent between the 1994-95 and 2005-06 ski seasons. One of the council’s top 10 goals is to create a program aimed at reversing that trend.
“From all of our outreach and investigation over the last couple years, we’ve come to realize that if we want to have a lodging program that actually moves the needle, we need to make some movement in those three categories,” Community Development Director Chris Bendon said.
At previous meetings, the majority of council has said it cautiously supports four-story lodges, only if compelling reasons are presented. On Tuesday, Mayor Steve Skadron made it clear that the possibility of four-story buildings in downtown Aspen is the only impediment to him supporting the program as proposed. He said he’s fearful of the words “incentivize, relaxation and tipping the scales,” adding that they are reminiscent of infill, a controversial package of zoning amendments passed in 2005.
“My gut tells me that we are bordering on infill 2,” Skadron said. “I want to be thoroughly careful on how we approach this.”
Council Adam Frisch described the line graph for Aspen’s shrinking bed base as the “downhill skiing graph,” saying the status quo in this community is unhealthy. He said something needs to be done, because if no action is taken, the downhill skiing gets steeper.
The discussion, which saw eight members of the public speak up, was continued until June 9. The floor will be open to the public again at that time.
Development-fee waivers and rebates received much discussion from the council. As proposed, participating lodge projects without a residential component could receive a 50 percent waiver for a basic project. There’s also the possibility for 75 and 100 percent rebates, which would be paid back by the city over time, for more extensive projects. Redevelopments with residential components would be eligible for 25 percent waivers, as well as 50 and 75 percent rebates, depending on the scope of the project.
Skadron questioned the effect that these waivers and rebates will have on Aspen maintaining services like transit. He also expressed concern about the proposed changes to affordable-housing requirements.
As proposed, affordable-housing requirements — for projects without a free-market-residential component — would be lowered for program participants. Currently, the construction of an 11-unit lodge requires mitigation for 3.96 full-time-equivalent employees. As proposed in the new program, an eligible 11-unit lodge would require 1.75 full-time-equivalent employees, essentially half the current requirement. The requirement for a 26-unit lodge would decrease from 9.36 to 3.5 full-time equivalents.
“As this development carries less of its own weight, in terms of employee generation, these employees will be living outside the S-curves,” Skadron said, adding that it will add to congestion at Aspen’s entrance. “This is not independent of anything else. We have to consider its relationship to other community goals, like reducing employee-trip generation.”
Assistant City Manager Barry Crook offered the suggestion of monetizing the cost of incentives through the general fund.
“You don’t have to simply waive all these requirements and all these fees,” Crook said. “The general fund can pay for these incentives.”
“Can the general fund bear that?” Skadron asked.
“You’ll have to budget for it,” Crook said. “You’ll have to make decisions about how you spend your money.”
Frisch agreed that the city might need to adjust “how the pie is sliced,” so affordable housing is not the only department bearing the brunt.
“If it’s a couple less dollars collected by a variety of city departments, I don’t see Aspen not staying Aspen,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of resources, a tremendous amount of money. And if we have a little bit less than a tremendous amount of money, I still think we can be okay.”
Councilman Art Daily agreed with Frisch but said Aspen needs to be sensitive to mass and scale. Council member Dwayne Romero said the purpose of the program is not to add mass, scale and free-market-residential units in the downtown core for the sake of the “all-encompassing vitality.” He said it’s the council’s mission to learn from the past.
“The key ingredient to a tourism-based economy is a competitive lodge base,” Romero said. “We need to have this conversation. ... It’s going to require some awkward conversations for several months.”
Councilwoman Ann Mullins was not present at the meeting.