Aspen City Council passes lodge-incentive package

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

With building heights a point of contention and more than three hours of discussion, the Aspen City Council passed the town’s lodge-incentive package on Monday night in a 3-2 vote, wrapping up about two years of work aimed at improving Aspen’s bed base.

Councilmen Art Daily, Adam Frisch and Dwayne Romero voted in favor of the ordinance, while Mayor Steve Skadron and Councilwoman Ann Mullins cast dissenting votes.

The 91-page ordinance, set to take effect in 30 days, has a five-year sunset and includes language that allows developers to propose four-story lodges south of Durant Avenue (toward Aspen Mountain). Approval of such a project would be based on views and appropriateness in the surrounding neighborhood.

Mayor Steve Skadron argued that Aspen already has a downtown core burdened by “surprising heights, endless development” and conflicts between residential and commercial occupants. In his experience, he said, four stories equates to about 63 feet, but Frisch said he anticipates 45-foot applications.

“The package is too aggressive,” Skadron said, adding that the community should have learned its lesson from infill, a controversial set of zoning amendments passed in 2005.

Mullins agreed, saying three stories is a better baseline. She expects to see requests for four and five stories.

“You’re going to have to fight your way back down again,” she said. “You start with three, at least your baseline is a little bit lower and more controlled.”

Frisch claimed the community has lost no protection with the new ordinance, arguing that the council will have the same power as before to reject or deny a proposal. The new package, he said, is simply a signal that the council is at least willing to discuss the potential for four stories.

Daily, who said he has “struggled with the height issue for quite a while,” offered additional language to the lodge-incentive program concerning “compatibility” and proposed uses for fourth floors — penthouses, for example. The majority of the council agreed to those changes as well as a suggestion from Romero, who asked for a follow-up meeting, or dashboard, within the next five years to check the program’s progress.

Other items widely discussed included reductions in affordable-housing requirements and the size of free-market residences included in projects.

Affordable-housing requirements — concerning projects without a free-market-residential component — will be lowered for “standard-plus” program participants. Requirements vary based on the size of the lodge project. For example, with the new program, an eligible 11-unit lodge requires 1.75 full-time-equivalent employees, essentially half the previous requirement. The requirement for a 26-unit lodge decreases from 9.36 to 3.5 full-time equivalents.

Frisch made the argument that the previous code was creating zero affordable-housing units because the city was seeing no new lodge projects.

“When you multiply anything by zero, you get zero,” he said. “To say that we’re going to lose affordable housing, I think, is just factually untrue.”

Among Skadron’s concerns was the reduction in affordable-housing requirements. Aspen’s land-use code, he said, is based on the principle that development should carry its own weight, and the new ordinance “excuses that burden.”

“This ordinance results in a need for more workers but provides nowhere for them to reside,” he said.

Also in the ordinance is a change to allowable free-market residential floor area. Total achievable floor area for free-market is now 40 to 60 percent of net livable space, which, for example, allows a 10,000-square-foot lodge to feature a free-market component between 4,000 and 6,000 square feet.

During the public-comment portion, many in the hotel and destination industry spoke out, with some in full support and some saying the ordinance does not go far enough. Donnie Lee, general manager of The Gant, called it a good set of “measured steps” but said it’s not going to move the needle. On building heights, he said he appreciates the fear that’s been expressed but believes four-story structures can be adopted gracefully.

“Nobody wants 70-foot buildings in our community,” he said.

Former Mayor Mick Ireland echoed Skadron’s point that four stories equate to 63 feet.

Michael Brown, co-owner of Hotel Aspen, the Molly Gibson Lodge and the Mountain House Lodge, said the ordinance fails to incentivize the building of “not just hotels but better hotels.” The Limelight, he said, with its large common area, is a “great example of vitality,” where guests can congregate after skiing. The current code, he added, emphasizes building “a box with a desk.”

Community Development Director Chris Bendon said the Planning Department has been trying to balance the same trade-offs for the past two years, adding that there are no easy solutions.

“We think we have an appropriate balance point,” Bendon said. “If we don’t, we’ll go back and try to see if we can discover another one. But there’s probably not an ordinance where everything in there is on your wish list.”