Aspen eyes extension of moratorium

Carolyn Sackariason
Aspen, CO Colorado
Julio Vasquez, foreground, Jorge Fernandez and Max Filiss from Divide Creek Builders, help renovate Aspen Sports. Aspen is seeking an extension on its development moratorium in order to pass laws to help local-serving businesses. (Jordan Curet/Aspen Times file)

ASPEN ” City officials are aiming to ban developers from converting or remodeling downtown buildings until June so they can draft new laws to protect locally serving businesses.

City staff is asking Aspen City Council to extend a 10-month moratorium that prohibits issuing building permits for projects that would alter interiors of historical properties in the commercial core.

The moratorium also prohibits issuing building permits for developers who could change the type of an existing business in a downtown property. However, the current moratorium allows certain exceptions.

The moratorium, first adopted on Dec. 12, 2006, was set to expire on June 12, 2007. The council extended it until Dec. 12.

City Hall’s community development staff is asking the council to extend the moratorium until June 12, 2008, so they can further investigate new laws to preserve locally serving businesses and regulate the commercial mix downtown. City Council will discuss the proposed ordinance at its Oct. 22 meeting.

The council is supportive of finding ways to regulate the commercial core and prevent local businesses from disappearing as a result of new development. The council earlier this summer directed staff to continue researching what other cities do to regulate their downtown commercial cores. The council has asked city staff to design a new set of laws applicable to Aspen.

Staff also needs time to take into consideration the results of an instant keypad voting session that centered around residents’ thoughts on what kinds of businesses should be in downtown Aspen.

“The keypad session was intended to get public feedback on this issue,” said Ben Gagnon, City Hall’s special projects planner, who added that nearly half of the 90 people who participated were local business owners. “We need to digest that, and staff needs to work with the council to get a handle on the problem, if there is one.”

Some city officials believe the ratio of downtown businesses is somewhat out of balance with too much emphasis on office, clothing, home furnishings, and not enough on restaurant and nightlife uses that generate more vitality. They are particularly concerned that the pedestrian malls are even more out of balance than the rest of downtown as a whole.

Mayor Mick Ireland has said the commercial mix downtown is one of the biggest issues facing the community and the resort, as longtime businesses ” particularly restaurants ” continue to be redeveloped into high-end retail shops.

Ireland told The Aspen Times last month that he hopes the council will be able to pass a law regulating commercial use by the end of the year.

“We want to take steps to protect locally serving businesses,” he said. “It’s not just for locals, but it’s important for tourists too. Your first-time tourist isn’t necessarily here to go to Gucci.”

Gagnon said city staff hasn’t had enough time to do the necessary work needed to fully address the commercial mix of downtown Aspen.

“As a general matter, the public policy discussion on commercial mix has taken an extended period of time due to the highly complex nature of the problem, the sometimes experimental nature of the potential regulatory tools and the time required to attend to various other pressing issues,” Gagnon wrote in an Oct. 15 memo to the council.

But Gagnon said on Monday that some work has been done, and council members have been discussing the issue for the past four months.

“I’m not sure we will need the full six months,” he said. “We’re pretty confident we’ll get to a resolution before that deadline.”

Based on a survey city staff members performed earlier this summer, in the commercial core as a whole, the number of office, home furnishings and clothing stores far outnumber restaurants, nightlife establishments and coffee shops ” more than 3-to-1. On the pedestrian malls, where it’s essential to have vitality, that ratio jumps 4-to-1, according to city officials.

As a result, city staff proposed earlier this summer to prohibit certain uses on pedestrian malls, urging elected officials to a make public policy statement that specific stores don’t belong there. Those would include exclusive designer and luxury-brand merchandise shops, and jewelry stores.

City staff also proposed to remove retail from the list of permitted uses on pedestrian malls and require any new applicant to meet several conditions if retail were to be put in a particular storefront.

Additionally, staff wants the city to make it easier and more attractive for restaurant owners to set up shop on the malls. That could be in the form of waiving city fees on building permits and liquor licenses, as well as other incentives.

It wouldn’t be the first time city government has regulated the downtown commercial mix. In recent years, the City Council passed a law that prohibits offices in street level storefronts.

City staff has done research on other cities throughout the United States, showing communities have gone so far as to ban high-end luxury stores, or create a cap on businesses that offer particular items such as jewelry.

The City Council is expected to discuss the issue during several public meetings over the coming months. Following those meetings, city staff is likely to draft a recommendation on which regulatory tools are most applicable.

As for potential laws on the historic designation of interior elements in downtown buildings, staff is ready to introduce them for approval from the Historic Preservation Commission, the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council this winter.

The City Council also will be asked on Oct. 22 to extend the moratorium on land-use applications in the Service Commercial Industrial Zone, which includes Obermeyer Place, the North Mill Street Building (also known as the Puppy Smith property) and the Riverside property directly behind it.

Those properties were part of the original moratorium first adopted in April 2006. It was extended numerous times before the council terminated it on May 29. The SCI zone district was the exception.

Dating back to 2006, staff and the City Council have grappled with how to further regulate types of businesses in that zone.

City staffers have held informal meetings with more than a dozen business owners on both sides of North Mill Street. City Council wants an overview of the Obermeyer development, specifically how well businesses are doing in that area.

Staff intends to draft potential code amendments and schedule public hearings on the matter in the next three months.

Carolyn Sackariason’s e-mail address is