Redoing downtowns | AspenTimes.com

Redoing downtowns

Janet UrquhartAspen Times Staff Writer

“Let’s be realistic and put the density where it belongs – in the tourist core.””We literally haven’t had the types of development we thought we were zoning for in town.””Half the reason we’re doing the downtown redevelopment is to get people to live there.”Regular observers of the goings-on at Aspen City Hall might swear they’ve heard those very observations expressed in the City Council chambers, where Aspen’s elected officials have been grappling with a sweeping set of proposed zoning amendments since March.But Aspen is hardly alone among ski resorts, in either its perceived problems or its struggles to craft solutions. It wasn’t Aspen’s ongoing debate over “infill” – a broad package of zoning amendments aimed at fostering new development and renewed vitality – that spawned the aforementioned musings. Rather, they are sentiments expressed recently in Ketchum, Idaho, and Jackson Hole, Wyo.While Aspenites battle over building heights and threatened views of the surrounding mountains, Ketchum relaxed its height restrictions in hopes of luring a first-class hotel, and then recoiled when one was proposed. Just this week, the Jackson Town Council gave its final blessing to a set of ordinances that establish the Downtown Redevelopment District, boosting allowed building heights and densities in the hopes of spurring new, mixed-use buildings that will bring residences – and people – into its core.Meanwhile, the Ketchum City Council has approved a modified hotel plan that lopped 12 feet off of the original proposal’s height.In nearby Sun Valley, Idaho, the City Council has recently overhauled its commercial core zoning to require that affordable housing and commercial space be part of new projects. Its goal is halting purely residential development in the city’s two commercial centers. An existing 64-foot height limit was not altered.”Aspen reached certain critical points before other communities did in a lot of ways, but in some respects, maybe we’re not as far ahead of the crowd as we like to think we are,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud. She met last month with a visiting contingent of Jackson officials who made stops at several Colorado resorts to see how they’re dealing with challenges common to many ski towns – worker housing, parking, downtown zoning and economic vitality.”You probably hear the same things at Aspen City Council meetings that I hear,” Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon told an Aspen Times reporter.He most certainly heard an Aspen-style clamor when Ketchum developer Brian Barsotti proposed an 80-room hotel that topped out at 59 feet.”That was soundly rejected by the public,” Simon said. “There is the perception that anything over 35 feet or three stories is changing the character of the community.”Or, as one Aspenite put it this summer, when Aspen was busy sending developers of a 57-foot timeshare lodge proposal back to the drawing board: It’s “Vail scale” (Insert requisite shudder here).People placesKetchum retooled its downtown zoning in 2001, loosening up on allowable density specifically to encourage hotel development in a town that, like Aspen, has watched a considerable number of its tourist beds disappear over the past several years. Rather than establish a firm height limit with its amended zoning, however, the council simply decided a hotel developer could seek a waiver on height. And Barsotti did, sparking a community debate over competing goals – the need for a hotel versus the impact of a building that would be considerably taller than anything else in town.Councilman Maurice Charlat supported Barsotti’s initial proposal, though the council ultimately remanded the project back to the Planning and Zoning Commission with the directive to hold the line at 47 feet – 7 feet over the zoning limit in the commercial core.Like Aspen, Ketchum is a one-time mining town, though a fire ravaged many of its original, historic downtown buildings. It boasts a handful of lodges and motels, including the quaint Bald Mountain Lodge at the corner of First and Main streets. The cabin-style lodge, built in the 1920s, occupies a square block at the southern end of Ketchum’s main drag. Barsotti has proposed razing the buildings and constructing his new Bald Mountain Lodge – an 84,650-square-foot luxury hotel.”We don’t have a hotel in town, yet we’re a tourist town and a destination resort,” Charlat noted.The famous Sun Valley Lodge is a mile outside of Ketchum in what is now the independent municipality of Sun Valley. But the ski slopes of Bald Mountain tower over Ketchum.”My feeling as mayor, is [the hotel] will add some economic vitality by providing people to eat in our restaurants and shop in our stores,” Simon said. “I think that’s what we need.”Let’s be realistic and put the density where it belongs – in the tourist core,” he continued.”We want density, we want people in our downtown,” adds Harold Moniz, Ketchum’s planning director. “Hotels, more than any other place, are people buildings.”New places to stay in the heart of Ketchum could help generate a more vital core – one where shops remain open past 5 or 6 p.m., he reasoned.Aspen has cited much the same goal with its desire to lure more housing into the core.`Wasting space’Downtown Jackson, on the other hand, is busy well into the evening with tourists who ply the boardwalks of Town Square and the blocks beyond, where Old West-style buildings contain a mix of Western-themed shops, restaurants and watering holes.The square itself, a park at the heart of the commercial district, borders the busiest intersection in the state of Wyoming, noted one city official. Some 3 million people a year make a turn at the junction of Jackson’s two main thoroughfares.Jackson, the southern gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, is a natural stop for tourists, but its locals neither shop nor live downtown.The Jackson Town Council hopes to spur changes to its downtown core with a newly adopted Downtown Redevelopment District – a zoning “overlay” that sprang from perceived shortcomings with the existing code. Jackson’s program, and the arguments for it, are eerily similar to Aspen’s infill proposal.”I think a lot of communities are going through what we, and Aspen, are trying to do downtown,” said Tyler Sinclair, Jackson’s senior planner. “The most significant challenge we’ve had is to get mixed-use development, and especially residential development, downtown.”When Jackson officials toured downtown Aspen recently, they peppered a resident of the Benedict Commons affordable housing project, who happened to be outside sipping coffee, with questions about her condo and how she liked living in the commercial core.Mirroring Jackson’s redevelopment district supporters, Aspen’s infill proponents concluded the city was stifling new development that could bring a mix of commercial and residential space to the downtown core. The infill concept originated with calls to create more worker housing in Aspen’s original town site, rather than sprawling development on the edges.Last year, Jackson residents, too, took a dim view of additional sprawl, rejecting the proposed annexation of Hereford Ranch and a massive upzoning of the rural land to accommodate some 1,800 homes and 500,000 square feet of commercial space.The Downtown Redevelopment District acknowledges there is room for more development within the town’s commercial zones, both through taller buildings and greater density, explained Town Councilman Mark Obringer, an unabashed proponent of the district. It will allow taller buildings on individual lots or two adjacent lots, while the current code relaxes height restrictions only for larger parcels. The infrastructure, schools and city services needed to serve additional development are already in place in the core, Obringer reasoned.”It doesn’t cost me anything to let the town go up,” he said. “We just don’t think it’s in the best interest of the community to be wasting space.”People are used to the quaint Jackson, but the reality is, it’s underutilized at this point,” Obringer continued.When Jackson adopted a new comprehensive plan in the mid-1990s, it effectively eliminated opportunities for housing in some sections of town, according to Obringer, a seven-year veteran of the council and a member of the Planning Commission before that.”We literally haven’t had the type of development that we thought we were zoning for in town,” he said.In fact, the zoning in two commercial areas bordering the core is so restrictive, it really isn’t feasible to build anything, though town officials and even private citizens agree it’s a tired section of town that should be redeveloped. The comprehensive plan slapped a de facto moratorium on much of north Jackson, Obringer contends.”We zoned housing opportunities out of the downtown area and we’ve all suffered the consequences of that,” said Mayor Mark Barron during a recent council review of the redevelopment district. The result, he said, is a work force of commuters who spend their paychecks elsewhere because they live elsewhere.Generating additional housing was, in fact, central to Jackson’s debate over the redevelopment district. It wasn’t the increase in building heights from 35 to 46 feet or a potential fourfold increase in density in some areas that generated most of the debate. Rather, it was whether Jackson will get the downtown housing it’s hoping for without requiring it.The Jackson Hole News & Guide panned the proposed district on its editorial page.”Anyone who wants to realize the `highest and best use’ of a property in Jackson will develop high-end housing and commercial space, which creates jobs and swells the demand for worker housing,” the newspaper warned.”This council should listen to its critics and require housing – some of it affordable – in the redevelopment plan.”Margie Lynch, program director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, has voiced similar concerns.The alliance supports the district in concept as an alternative to urban sprawl, but without requiring housing in new mixed-use buildings, the town could get an onslaught of commercial and lodge development.”Unless we get the kind of development our community needs and wants, it’s just growth,” said Lynch, who, along with a representative of the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, unsuccessfully lobbied the council to require 20 percent of the residential floor area built in the district to be deed-restricted as worker housing.Instead, the town’s existing housing requirement – affordable housing must be provided for 15 percent of the residents housed in a project – remains in effect until Jackson’s housing regulations are overhauled. That’s on the town’s “to-do” list.”Half the reason we’re doing the downtown redevelopment is to get people to live here,” agreed Councilman Steve Harrington.The district does contain incentives to build housing, including waiving on-site parking requirements for deed-restricted units and smaller free-market condos, but incentives alone have never produced worker housing before, noted the News & Guide.Some observers wonder if locals really want to live downtown – the ski slopes of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort aren’t within walking distance – or whether anyone will want a condo that doesn’t come with a parking spot, especially since the town currently prohibits overnight parking on its streets and lots in the wintertime to facilitate snow removal.Structured parking on town lots is coming, confirmed Sinclair, the town planner.”I think that’s a fair comment that we’re in uncharted territory here,” he said. “Would somebody buy a unit in downtown Jackson if they don’t have parking?”Community characterThe prospect of taller buildings in Jackson has hardly generated the public stir that has enlivened Aspen’s discussions of infill, but in Jackson, too, retaining the character that makes its downtown unique has been on the minds of many.Some council members have expressed reservations about including the Town Square in the district, but others predict the already-successful commercial buildings there are unlikely to see redevelopment. Infill proponents have made a similar argument in downplaying the threat of major changes to Aspen’s commercial core.”I don’t want to see this height, particularly, and bulk around the Town Square,” Jackson’s Harrington said. “I think that’s something that we have in terms of community character that’s unique.””I’m not afraid of going there,” countered Councilman Scott Anderson. “I think there are some great buildings on the square. I also think there are some that don’t work very well.”I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of redevelopment unless you put a lot of carrots out there on the square.”But Don Harger, who owns property and an old-time photo business on the square, isn’t so sure.Many of the buildings on the square now approach the 35-foot mark with the parapet of their false front, but most are two-story buildings with generous ceiling heights. Third and fourth floors, though anything above 38 feet must be pushed back from the edge of the building, will be an attractive option for some property owners, Harger predicted.”It will change the character of the square,” he said. “More will happen off the square, where there are properties that need to be redeveloped.””A lot of folks in the community are kind of nervous about what’s going on . but they see enormous potential,” Lynch told council members.Jackson should make sure it realizes that potential by mandating the housing it wants, she contends, but others, including Councilman Obringer, worry that boosting the housing requirement will wind up discouraging redevelopment.”I think there’s a possibility that not getting anything is better than what we might get,” Lynch said, echoing a familiar refrain to followers of Aspen’s infill debate.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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