Get some guts, City Hall
January 15, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoWhere is Big Brother when you need him? While I typically don’t support government intruding into our personal affairs, sometimes it’s a necessary evil.It’s certainly necessary now because the evil that has infected this town has grown into an abscess that could very well lead to its death. The Aspen City Council finds itself fighting the pursuit of the almighty dollar once again.When it comes to the local marketplace, we must demand action from our leaders because Aspen’s property owners and developers see only dollar signs. That’s what happening at 420 Cooper Ave., home of the Red Onion – Aspen’s oldest bar. It’s an institution that’s been there since the town’s inception.The historic bar is scheduled to close March 31 because the building’s new owners, Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht, are tripling the rent on David “Wabs” Walbert. Unable to afford such a steep price, Wabs has announced last call for the business he’s owned for 23 years.Until last week, there had been much speculation that the place would be gutted and turned into retail space, or worse yet, another showroom for real estate development. But last week, Garfield and Hecht approached the City Council with Cache Cache owners Jodi Larner and Chris Lanter, to inform them of the plans they’ve been devising since at least November. Larner and Lanter want to operate the Red Onion, which would be expanded by taking over the Omnibus Gallery next door – which Garfield and Hecht also own.It would require an amendment to the City Council’s six-month moratorium on new permits that propose changing the use of the existing business. While Larner and Lanter’s plans for the Red Onion wouldn’t change the use of that business, it would at the gallery. If one of the moratorium’s goals is to preserve historic businesses and the character of downtown, an amendment to the moratorium should be a no-brainer for City Council.Our elected officials are voted into office to represent us and protect our most prized assets. They need to intervene in the Scallion Rouge saga and do whatever is necessary to save it. I’m not sure that they fully grasp that the Red Onion is more than just another bar. It represents much more than that – it’s a piece of Aspen history that shouldn’t be lost to the highest bidder.I’m also not certain the Aspen City Council understands the power it has in shaping the character of downtown. The moratorium is too little too late – regulations should have been put in place more than a decade ago to preserve the retail makeup of town. Longtime businesses – drugstores, bars, restaurants and other key places – have been replaced with real estate offices and high-end boutiques.It’s clear that we need more bars and restaurants for tourists and locals to mingle – it’s vital to our community spirit. Just look at the success the Double Dog Pub has had since Steak Pit owners Cindy and Bob Glowacki took over the antique store adjacent to the restaurant. The bar, which has been open for nearly a year now, is steadily packed throughout the week and is quickly becoming a locals hangout where tourists feel welcome.If the city government isn’t creative or insightful enough to create a successful economic model for its downtown then it should look at other cities that have. Countless cities have passed ordinances that regulate their commercial cores. In Laguna Beach, Calif., the city council has to approve new business permits, and businesses must prove that they will not contribute to the oversaturation of a certain type of use. Carmel, Calif., has a cap on the number of jewelry stores, as well as art galleries.Santa Monica, also known as “the People’s Republic of Santa Monica” because of the government’s regulations on everything from rent prices to a citywide smoking ban, recently figured out how to save its most popular shopping districts from the “chain effect.” Looking to stem the steady departures of eateries along the Third Street Promenade because of sharply escalating rents, the city council there in 2001 passed a moratorium for restaurant-to-retail conversions on the outdoor mall. While the moratorium was in place, a task force developed recommendations for a permanent way to keep the retail/restaurant balance within current levels. As a result, zoning regulations now dictate the ratio of how much retail versus restaurants can be on a square block.The city’s actions put it at odds with many property owners, who argued that the city council was overstepping its bounds. Santa Monica city government is notorious for standing up to landlords and developers who typically don’t concern themselves with the overall economic health of the city, but rather their own pocketbooks.Larner and Lanter should be commended for trying to save the Red Onion. I can’t say the same thing for Garfield and Hecht – longtime locals who should understand that preserving Aspen’s history is more important than padding their bank accounts.It’s time for the Aspen City Council to look at the bigger picture and save Aspen’s downtown – what’s left of it. It’s time to exert your power, City Council. We gave it to you for a reason.Sack has a big brother in Minnesota but needs one in Aspen. E-mail her at email@example.com.