Aspen buildings: Candidates sound off

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – With the May 7 municipal election two weeks away, this week The Aspen Times is running a series of questions for the four candidates for the two open seats on Aspen City Council. Next week, The Aspen Times will pose the same questions to the six candidates for mayor.

The four candidates for City Council are Jonny Carlson, Art Daily, Ann Mullins and Dwayne Romero.

Check The Aspen Times this week, Monday through Friday, to see where the candidates stand on a variety of issues.

Today’s question: Last year, a majority of Aspen City Council members (including the mayor, who is a voting member) agreed to a 28-foot height limit in the downtown area for new and renovated building projects and a ban on new free-market residential projects. Do you agree or disagree.

My position on that one is to go low and slow. This is such a beautiful place. I don’t think that we need a whole bunch more Sky Hotels or Little Nells. I think that we need to limit our building sizes because taller buildings just obscure the mountain and beauty of Aspen.

Without a doubt, I would want to keep that in place.

On balance, I’m not in favor of free-market residential uses in the present downtown core. I believe the critical use there is commercial. That’s what brings us downtown – diverse retail and artistic shops, restaurants, bars – and I am talking about Aspen residents and tourists alike. I’m all for choices, differences, fun, noise, people – i.e., messy vitality, and I want to encourage it wherever I can.

Hotels and lodges fuel this vitality. Free-market residences do not. Instead, they tend to stifle it. Occupants prefer peace and quiet. In many ways, they are incompatible uses. Some argue redevelopment of downtown buildings won’t/can’t occur without the economic engine incentive of third-floor penthouses. I guess I don’t agree. Downtown Aspen has been redeveloping and reinventing itself for 60 years without a strong residential component.

I will always listen to new and better arguments and information. For now, that is what I believe.

Outside the critical commercial core, there should be greater flexibility in terms of both building heights and uses.

Limiting the height in the downtown core was a positive and necessary step after the city had seen the effects of development in the early 2000s. But the legislation may be too rigid a response to the problem; the pendulum had swung too far in one direction and now perhaps too far in the other.

The legislation addresses mass and scale, context and significant views, but within those parameters it should also consider potential utilization of the property and then allow some flexibility in height to adapt to the situation. Allowing and encouraging lodging in the core is a very important component of the legislation. This lodging will bring vitality and activity to the downtown core.

Residential units, if occupied full time, can also contribute to that vitality. Residential units with strict controls on size, occupancy and location should be allowed in the downtown core. I would favor keeping this legislation in place for the next year or two and carefully evaluating its effects on building in the downtown core. At that time, its success can be determined and amendments made if necessary.

I did not agree with the decision, but more importantly, I did not agree with the process by which the council came to this decision.

The ill-advised approach of using the emergency ordinance ended up inducing the exact opposite result we all imagined: a rush of nearly a dozen land-use applications by panicked and alarmed property owners. The market (and the development community) is typically to blame for these rushes, but not this time. Indeed, there was not nearly the requisite amount of demand to warrant this type of activity.

If council intends to deploy the emergency ordinance as a tool to change the land-use code (an approach that in my view defies the fundamentals of an open and democratic process), two things should be in place: first, a real, clearly understood emergency; second, four votes. Council lacked both.

As to the question of continuing this height limitation, I believe it is more important to examine what we can do to adjust the criteria to achieve a lodging exception. As is currently written, essentially no redevelopment can occur (the lodging exception is all but impossible to achieve given high land values and super steep mitigation and improvement costs). If we are truly sincere with the goal of maintaining/strengthening our competitive advantage as a tourist-based economy, we must recognize that some lodging replenishment is necessary. Ironically, this increases the importance of finding new locations to potentially offset the eroding tourist bed base in Aspen. This would include a revisit of the important Lift One site previously rejected as a hotel/lodge proposal.


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