Big projects highlight a year of Aspen City Council
August 12, 2014
Going into its first year last summer, the Aspen City Council — with a new mayor and two new members — vowed to change the tone and tenor at City Hall, creating a more pragmatic environment for land-use applications.
The previous council, led by Mayor Mick Ireland, was regarded by some as less than diplomatic. An official who has served on both councils, Councilman Dwayne Romero, said the current group has made strides, but it's still a work in progress.
"This council does a really good job of focusing on the problems and issues and doesn't get into the personal focus," Romero said. "We try to stay constructive."
The Aspen Times recently caught up with all five council members, who reflected on four major land-use applications in 2013-14 and the discourse that brought them to approval.
“That parcel screams lodging, and it’s disheartening for the community that we couldn’t get a lodge product up there.”
Aspen city councilman, on the Lift 1A towhomes
Those projects include Hotel Aspen, Mountain House Lodge, a townhome project on South Aspen Street near Lift 1A and a mixed-use building located on the Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall.
Over the course of four public meetings from January through March, Hotel Aspen proved a contentious vote. As approved, the lodge would expand from 45 to 54 rooms and would include three free-market residential units, the latter drawing most of the discussion throughout the process. As a swing vote in the 3-1 decision, Councilman Art Daily did not register a "yes" until owners Michael and Aaron Brown conceded to 25-foot height limits on the free-market units.
In an interview, Daily said it wouldn't be his preference to act as the swing vote on all matters. Having a full council majority would make it less awkward, he said.
"When you're the swing vote, by its nature it becomes a little more personal, a little less comfortable," Daily said. "But that's just the way it is, so you go with it."
Putting his first major development application behind him, Daily added he will be better-prepared in the future.
While Councilwoman Ann Mullins was recused, Councilmen Romero and Adam Frisch were ready to approve the Hotel Aspen application at the first public meeting, with 32-foot free-market units.
"Dwayne and I were happy taking a larger product, but we were always happy to see it smaller. That's how I looked at it," Frisch said in an interview. "Hats off to Councilman Daily, who was able to work them down to a smaller project. So I'm even happier with what was approved than I was before."
From Romero's view, the houses proposed early on were more in line with what is typically seen in the West End.
"But obviously that wasn't the consensus opinion," he said. "You're not going to have perfect alignment in terms of view and opinion on any particular council. So you constructively work with those issues, those core disconnects."
As the dissenting voter, Mayor Steve Skadron still believes the council did not strike "an appropriate balance." Echoing previous statements, he said the proposal adds more "cold beds" with the free-market units than "hot beds" in lodging.
And Skadron added that he's not hard on development simply because he can be.
"I've seen other elected officials do that over the years," Skadron said, noting he understands the pressures that developers are under. "You get the bully pulpit, and you vote."
The council member's job, he said, is to weigh approval against the criteria laid out by land-use code. If the proposal fails to meet the standards of the Aspen Community Plan, then it's a "no."
"For what the community was asked to give up, I don't think we were getting enough in return," Skadron said of Hotel Aspen.
Frisch and Daily are hopeful that the Browns will follow through with construction. While Romero said he has no opinion on the matter, Skadron said he's confident Hotel Aspen will be redeveloped as approved, but he's not so confident that another Brown property, the Mountain House Lodge, will survive.
Mountain House Lodge
In May, the Browns won unanimous approval, absent Daily, to tear down the Mountain House Lodge structure and replace it with two single-family homes. However, there's a chance the 26-room lodge will remain, as the council granted a two-year window — at the request of the Browns — to explore alternatives.
The council's decision was relatively straightforward: Don't grant approval, and see the lodge torn down within 180 days; grant approval, and at least leave the possibility for the lodge to remain open.
"I understand the economics behind that," Skadron said of the Mountain House Lodge, adding that his hope is the Browns find something redeeming in the city's lodge-incentive program, which the council is currently working through.
If houses are built on the lot, Frisch said he would like to see the units occupied throughout the year. Whether it's one, two or three different fractional owners, he said Aspen wants to see people in town.
Mullins noted Michael Brown's participation at the city's meetings on the lodge-incentive program. If the program helps him keep the lodge, then great, Mullins said.
"I would hope it would since he has been such a participant in putting together that program," she said.
The outcome Mullins would like to see with the program is an injection of confidence into smaller lodge owners. With renovations, she said, it's very unpredictable: You take out one pipe, and you don't know what else you'll have to replace afterward.
"The best result in the next couple years would be to see these older lodges do renovations and start feeling confident that they can put some money into their places and it will create a return and it will be well-spent," Mullins said.
For her, Aspen is a "great combination of these big, fancy hotels and then the older lodges that are sprinkled around town."
On Mountain House Lodge, Romero was the one that reached out to the Browns, asking if they would hold off on tearing down the structure. As a property with a lodge-preservation overlay, Romero said it would be a shame to see it come down, especially given the fact that they're in the middle of writing the lodge-incentive program.
"To their credit, they were of the same mindset," Romero said of the Browns.
Five to 10 years down the road, a successful program to Romero would be the preservation of one or two lodges and upgrades to existing inventory.
"If one or two of those lodges are preserved and enhanced and kind repositioned for the next 50 years of lodging opportunity for our guests, then yeah, that would be good," Romero said.
420 E. Hyman Ave.
Another vote Skadron dissented on was 420 E. Hyman Ave., a pedestrian-mall property owned by developer John Martin, which houses Zocalito Latin Bistro, Annette's Mountain Bakeshop and CB Paws.
As approved, the building would be demolished and reconstructed as a three-story mixed-use structure, including commercial, free-market residential and affordable housing. The council voted 3-1, with Mullins recused, for approval amid questions concerning a stipulation that whoever occupies the penthouse cannot complain about downtown noise.
Part of the concern came from a dispute that played out in Aspen Municipal Court in January between the Aspen Brewing Co. and downtown penthouse owners Michael Sedoy and Natalia Shvachko. According to court proceedings, the couple phoned police 23 times between late December 2012 and early September to complain about sounds coming from the East Hopkins Avenue bar. Though the brewer received three separate citations from the city, a six-person jury absolved the tasting room of any wrongdoing.
Skadron questioned the power of the "no complaining" clause and made clear that he was against the entire application, saying penthouses have shown that they are incompatible with the downtown core.
Mullins said it's a good thing there's not always a clear-cut majority on the council.
"We've had a lot of 3-2 votes and some 4-1," she said. "That's a good sign, too. You don't want everybody to be on the same page because they're not representing all the interests in town."
LIFT 1A townhomes One application that the majority of the council expresses disappointment with is the townhomes that were approved on South Aspen Street. Regarded as one of the most valuable and important pieces of property left in Aspen, the site near Lift 1A seems like a good fit for lodging, but it has proven financially difficult in the 10 years of meetings.
Though she was the dissenting vote, Mullins said that with prior approvals from 2003, the council could not have legally denied applicant David Parker.
"You look at this property, which is one of the most valuable, visible, important pieces of property in Aspen, and why are we settling for something we consider second-rate?" Mullins asked. "I would've liked to explore other options. I was disappointed in what was approved."
Skadron, who voted "no" on the application for years as a council member, said he regrets not finding the optimal outcome. With townhomes, he said Aspen ends up with a more lights-off neighborhood.
"The community gained nothing," he said, adding that it might be the "least worst" option, however.
Frisch agreed with Mullins and Skadron, calling the approval "a bummer."
"That parcel screams lodging, and it's disheartening for the community that we couldn't get a lodge product up there," Frisch said.
Until he sees a shovel in the ground, though, he remains optimistic that lodging is a possibility.
"I'm hoping that we can see something besides townhomes up there," he said. "But that's what's been approved, and that's what makes more economic sense."
With the lodge-incentive program, Frisch said he would be encouraged if Aspen can preserve its "endangered species," the six to eight independently owned and operated lodges. If Aspen doesn't lose any more, due to pressure from the real estate market, it's a success, he said. He also would like to see the Boomerang return as a lodge and the Sky Hotel redeveloped.
What Skadron wants is development driven by lodging rather than free-market components.
"That development results in an increase in number of rooms — not simply a few rooms and a bunch of free-market development alongside them," Skadron said.