Guest opinion: Restore retail – elect a pro-retail Council | AspenTimes.com

Guest opinion: Restore retail – elect a pro-retail Council

Susan O'Neal

I cannot believe my eyes – I had already written this letter to the editor when I saw the April 8 Aspen Times article, “City to hire downtown manager – Job gets one-year trial run.” I was astounded.

This is an example of the narrow “inside the box” thinking of our City Council – they decided that the manager should be a government employee and someone from Aspen! Wrong! What a complete waste of money! It doesn’t take much intelligence to recognize that the solution for revitalization of Aspen will not likely be someone who is used to seeing the town day after day, but someone with a fresh perspective who can recommend fresh revitalization solutions.

Steve Barwick is quoted as having said, “I’m looking at this being a local person . who knows the players and can talk to them.” With all due respect, it should be obvious that it will be far more effective to invite someone to assess the situation who does not know the local players and has no vested self-interest.

Tom McCabe is quoted as saying “If the city is putting up the money . we should be the boss, period,” which sounds to me as though Tom is more interested in having control than in solving the problem. The Times also quoted McCabe, referring to retail sales, as saying, “We can’t do anything about it anyway!”

Even Mayor Klanderud was quoted as saying, “I think we need to hear from our own people here – what works and what doesn’t work.” I would say this is the opposite of what we need. We need a qualified outsider who has never met any of the players! In 15 minutes, an outsider can assess the problem and recommend revitalization solutions that we can’t see ourselves – because we live here!

How is it possible that the City Council either believes there are no solutions to the retail problem or that the solutions can only come from within Aspen?

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I have not observed that the City Council has taken responsible action to preserve or restore downtown Aspen, so there is no doubt in my mind that, at this stage, the best solutions will come from outside the box.

It is a shame of huge dimensions that this City Council appears not to understand the long-term damage of failing to preserve street-level space in Aspen for retail business, which creates sales tax revenue, which in turn provides funding for Aspen’s nonprofit groups. The City Council has shown no leadership in restoring retail shops.

We agree that Aspen needs to be known as a summer and winter resort town, not just a second-home location. It goes without saying that good retail shops attract visitors, but we don’t need 11 handbag shops.

A friend of mine went to Aspen recently for the first time and was disappointed that Aspen did not seem “historic.” She thought Aspen would have more charm.

At a time when there are numerous street-level vacancies in downtown Aspen, I fail to understand how the proposed infill legislation solves the problem. If we can’t fill empty retail spaces now, why would we create more spaces? If we are not able to attract retail shops to Aspen (due to the overpriced rental rates), then I fail to understand the rationale for adding more commercial space. We can’t fill the commercial space that we have, and tragically, we have lost the charming little shops that once made Aspen special.

One City Council member told me the council was going to research what other resort towns had done to preserve street-level retail space before deciding what to do in Aspen. I doubt that that has been done, because historically the Aspen council has not chosen to learn from other communities, so I took it upon myself to investigate other up-market towns.

I have now spoken to the zoning departments in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the California cities of Carmel, Monterey, Santa Barbara, La Jolla, Sausalito, Tiburon, Alameda and Montecito. I hope the Aspen City Council is paying attention.

I have learned that a number of towns have not had to create ordinances because their city councils, landlords and residents understand the importance of preserving street-level space for uninterrupted retail shops. The head of the zoning office in Carmel told me that Carmel landlords understand the value of renting street-level space to retail, so the residents and landlords of Carmel took it upon themselves to preserve Carmel. Happily, Clint Eastwood did not have to take out his six-shooter to preserve downtown Carmel!

In case the Aspen City Council is listening, two historic main streets in Alameda are protected by an ordinance that restricts street-level office space. I was told that Tiburon is in the process of creating a similar ordinance within one year. I also learned that downtown Montecito (outside Santa Barbara) has been ruined by real estate offices, so there is no vitality at night. Do we want the same thing to happen to Aspen or are we capable of learning from other towns’ mistakes?

Santa Barbara has done market research that supports having continuous retail shops on street level, uninterrupted by non-retail space. Studies show that when professional offices, real estate offices or parking lots are mixed with retail shops, there is less pedestrian traffic. In other words, you get the best result when you have continuous retail shops on the street!

I am not suggesting that Aspen spend a penny to do market research, because it is common sense that visitors will not come to Aspen to stroll the streets if we don’t create an environment of interesting retail shops. Every resident I talk to grieves for the old days when Aspen had a wide variety of charming and diverse shops, had a reputation for good shopping, and going downtown created a social environment that benefited the restaurants as well.

The people in the Carmel zoning office referred me to a firm that they believe to be the finest urban planning outfit in the world. I have pursued this referral and have learned that this San Francisco firm has revitalized numerous resort towns and has very impressive references. Aspen can invite these world-renowned revitalization experts to come to Aspen for a one-day consultation for $3,000, plus travel expenses and accommodations. The decision to bring in the best at minimal cost would be a phenomenal investment in Aspen’s future (and survival).

I wonder if our council members really care enough about the survival of our little treasure to accept a fresh perspective on Aspen’s revitalization.

We all know that the cost of renting commercial space is the problem, but instead of just recognizing that cost is the problem, let’s elect a City Council who can find a solution as other up-market resort towns have done. Why can’t Aspen learn from others? We don’t need more pro-development council members, we need a pro-retail council before it is too late to recapture Aspen’s vitality! Terry Paulson is aware of this urgent need, but I have not seen other council members actively seeking ways to rescue the downtown streets from professional offices and non-revenue-generating offices.

Support small retail shops and returning to a charming historic town. There can be no question that Aspen’s retail survival depends on a fresh outside perspective for its revitalization.

Elect new Council members who are not afraid to learn from other communities.

Aspen resident Susan O’Neal is not a retailer, but is nonetheless “dedicated to returning Aspen to the jewel that old-timers say it once was.”

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