Aspen development, not chains, will feel more impact from Ordinance 6
What started out as a measure that could have crippled the future of chain stores in Aspen is now being deemed by some observers as a “feel-good” law devoid of any immediate impact.
Supporters of Ordinance 6, adopted by the Aspen City Council on Monday night, more or less have agreed with that sentiment, but also have offered that the legislation is a small piece of a larger effort to manage the influx of high-end, brand-name retailers into Aspen while diversifying its economy.
The movement to regulate chains came as downtown Aspen’s Rodeo Drive-esque rents — Aspen Kitchen pays $80,000 a month for its space, for example — make it virtually impossible for small, independent retailers to start up here. Another talking point was that Aspen has lost its small-town uniqueness because of what is perceived as increasing homogenization in the downtown core.
Ordinance 6 brewed for more than three months before passing this week. It wasn’t the City Council’s idea; the concept was introduced to elected officials in November by venture capitalist Jerry Murdock and former Aspen mayors John Bennett and Bill Stirling, whose research showed that chain retailers occupy roughly one-third of downtown Aspen’s ground-level storefront space.
In the wake of a series of City Council discussions, public outreach meetings and private talks among building owners and chain-regulation advocates, however, the idea gradually was watered down after originally being conceived as one that would change the way retail is done in Aspen.
“As it’s been modified, it’s lost a bit of its bite,” Stirling said at a January panel discussion held at the Koch Building on the Aspen Institute’s campus.
Even so, Ordinance 6 moved along, getting its first official look from Aspen City Council on Feb. 27.
“Basically, what they came up with were that existing buildings were exempt,” city Community Development Director Jessica Garrow said Thursday.
In other words, not one building under the jurisdiction of Ordinance 6 — which covers the two commercial districts in downtown as well as the Main Street historic district — is actually subject to it. However, any structure that is torn down and replaced would be subject to the ordinance as well as any structure that expands its net leasable space by 500 square feet or its floor area by 250 square feet.
The only chain stores beholden to Ordinance 6 would be future ones that move into new buildings that have not been approved or are in the city’s land-use application pipeline. The ordinance takes effect April 5. Garrow said there is the potential for a “mini-rush of (land-use applications) to come in” before that date in order to evade the grip of Ordinance 6.
The legislation describes chains, or so-called formula retailers, as having 11 or more locations that also meet two of the following criteria: having a standardized array of merchandise, standardized array of services, standardized facade, standardized decor and color scheme, uniform apparel, standardized sign, trademark or service mark.
Retailers meeting the criteria would undergo a conditional land-use review by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which would have the authority to allow or reject them. Planning and Zoning would be the exclusive decision-maker on whether a chain could set up shop.
“The funniest part of it is that landlords can turn every single building in their store into a chain,” said Aspen property broker Lorrie Winnerman. “Now that will never happen, because most chains here don’t make money.”
Bennett, Murdock and Stirling agreed that there wouldn’t be a short-term impact.
“It’s not a daring thing, but I think it’s a smart thing and in our community, it’s best for our long-term interest,” Stirling said at Monday’s meeting.
Former Councilman Torre, who is running for council in the May 2 election, called Ordinance 6 “watered down to the point where it’s acceptable for most.”
“This is just one piece,” he said.
Impacts on future development
Others have suggested Ordinance 6’s biggest impact will be discouraging future development in the downtown core, despite all of the talk about it clamping down on chain stores.
In her Jan. 19 Red Ant blog, City Hall critic Elizabeth Milias opined that the chain regulations actually “place potentially cumbersome restrictions on new and redeveloped buildings in the core, restrictions that will hinder and encumber investors and developers in such a way that new buildings and the redevelopment of existing ones will become financially untenable. No investor or developer will risk developing new retail space that cannot ever be rented to the same tenants as those in all the buildings around them. Theoretically, it ends development in the core.”
Critics also said the law creates an uneven playing field for developers of future properties in Aspen.
“You’re creating a market segment for existing property owners that will not exist for future property owners,” said Peter Fornell, who owns commercial property downtown. “And I think that’s a dangerous ground, and you should consider that to be dangerous ground, also.”
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