A downtown Aspen without cars? Not so fast, council says

A downtown Aspen devoid of automobiles and bustling with pedestrians and bicyclists is an idea that’s just not ready for prime time, city leaders agreed at a work session Monday.

Aspen City Council members were mostly agreeable, however, to taking an incremental approach toward converting some two-way downtown streets to one-way, adding dedicated bicycle lanes in both directions, eliminating some angle-parking spots in favor of parallel spaces, and shortening crosswalks at intersections.

But first things first, they cautioned. And that means gathering input from residents and businesses before city leaders decide about schematics or anything else relating to alterations to downtown’s traffic flow and parking.

“Instead of going to the community and saying ‘this is what it’s going to be,’ let’s go to the community and say, ‘How do you want it to be?’” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who added he would support no vehicles downtown but doesn’t think there’s the community will to do that now.

The work session was the next step in a public discussion underway — it’s a municipal project called “Safety and Mobility in the Core” — about improving safety downtown for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Motorists currently dominate the core, according to a presentation by city project manager P.J. Murray.

Approximately 70% of the city’s downtown right of way — that’s streets, sidewalks and alleys — caters to vehicles both moving and parked. The remaining 30% is dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists.

A memo from city engineer Tricia Aragon presented the council with multiple scenarios that tighten that gap or even eliminate it entirely.

Downtown streets under early consideration for alterations include Hopkins Avenue approaching Galena Street and Galena Street to Cooper Avenue. Those sections could be changed so they have bike lanes in both directions, parallel parking, and one-way streets. Businesses also would enjoy expanded space outside.

An example of that, which people can see and experience right now, is taking place on the 300 block of East Hyman Avenue and where it turns onto Mill Street. The once two-way street has been converted to one-way to accommodate two major constructions projects underway, one at the Wheeler Opera House, another at the old Crystal Palace Theater location where a boutique hotel is being built. Parallel parking also is on that leg.

Another approach would be eliminating vehicles altogether.

The various scenarios produced a discussion among council members about what they envision and what is realistic. Some recalled the uproar from the downtown businesses community when the city sprung a plan to make Hopkins Avenue one-way west from Mill Street to Aspen Street, near Paepcke Park. That was in 2018, and the city relented and nixed the idea.

“There’s going to be public outcry about lost parking spaces,” Councilman John Doyle said. “We’ve seen it before, and that’s not going to go away.”

Councilwoman Rachel Richards rattled off a number of concerns about going vehicle-free.

With a 9% reduction in total parking spaces downtown — under the vehicle-free scenario on those streets considered — that’s a 9% loss in parking revenue, she noted. That could mean potential cuts to the city’s in-town transit services — the Downtowner, for instance — that are funded by parking revenue.

“There needs to be balance, and we have a lot of residents and citizens who don’t bike and may not walk that much,” she said. “We have older residents. We have handicap spaces, and that accommodation has to continue.”

She added: “I think you’ll see far more resistance in the business community to these ideas than you’ll see in this meeting.”

Councilman Skippy Mesirow said he’s all for cutting cars out of the core, yet he tempered that thought noting it can’t be done at once.

“I think that for us to be successful in any change that is this dynamic, we need to be aligned on where we’re going and why, and in addition to where we’re going, is how we’re going to get there,” he said.

East Hopkins also poses a problem because on its 400 block is the Aspen Fire Department. Tinkering with parking or traffic flow on that block could be a hard sell and possibly at odds with public safety, Mayor Torre said.

“That is going to present some issues, some valid issues, about safety-response time, etcetera,” he said.

Torre also said public outreach needs to involve the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission, which is a volunteer city board.

Council members directed city employees involved in the project to run numbers on the financial impacts of losing parking spaces, as well as different how it might look if they took different approaches to the streets under consideration. They also wanted numbers on how many parking spots would be lost in different scenarios, noting downtown businesses covet those spaces because they provide convenience to shoppers.


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