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Aspens vision comes into focus

Carolyn SackariasonAspen Times Weekly
Aspen Times fileSolving the Entrance to Aspen, and traffic coming in and out of town, has been a goal of the Aspen Area Community Plan since 1993, when the comprehensive plan was first adopted. It is again a focal point in the updated AACP draft plan, currently being considered by government officials.
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ASPEN The vision for Aspens future is coming into focus and while hundreds of locals have set their sights on what they want their community to be, its now in the hands of elected officials.The Aspen Area Community Plan, or AACP, has largely flown under the radar by the collective citizenry since it was first created in 1993 but it plays a crucial role in guiding elected officials decisions on everything from traffic, affordable housing, growth management, historic preservation, open space, and other key issues facing local residents.Bureaucrats and consultants have been working on the third update to the AACP since last year. Starting in the fall of 2008, hundreds of residents have been involved in crafting the road map for Aspens future. Now, the AACP is in draft form and is being altered by the county and city planning and zoning commissions before its approved by Pitkin County and Aspens elected officials later this year.The AACP contains the underlying principles for officials to make laws, change the land use code, and approve or deny development projects. Despite the prevailing view that the plan is a guiding document without real legal teeth, the Aspen City Councils reliance upon the 2000 AACP is the subject of a lawsuit levied by developers of the Wienerstube restaurant. They were denied their request to redevelop the building at the corner of Spring Street and Hyman Avenue because their proposal didnt meet the Community Plans goal of fitting with the character of existing neighborhoods.The AACP also is a vehicle for elected officials to spend money and set policy. Paid parking in downtown Aspen is a result of the 1993 AACP; bus lanes from Buttermilk to the roundabout are an outcome of the 2000 plan. Developments like the Limelight Lodge were possible after zoning changes were outlined in 1993 AACP.Both the 1993 and 2000 AACP set policies that protect historic properties the Red Brick School building was purchased by the city government and city officials are working on an ordinance to protect buildings more than 30 years old from being demolished and replaced.The multi-million dollar plan now under consideration to redevelop and expand the Wheeler Opera House is an outcome of the 2000 AACPs arts and culture policies.Elected officials place a high value on the plan because its designed to reflect what a majority of Aspen residents want for their town.Its hugely important, said Aspen City Councilman Jack Johnson. Its a contract with the people.That contract has changed over the years as the communitys priorities shift. This years AACP draft contemplates what life in Aspen will be like in 2020. Focal points that have been included for the first time include policies on redevelopment at the Airport Business Center; taking care of the lifelong Aspenite and elevating environmental initiatives.

The 2009 AACP draft contains all of the usual areas of concern like transportation and housing, but new to the document is a chapter on the Airport Business Center which some consider the final frontier of development in Aspen.Hundreds of residents were asked what theyd like the ABC to look like in the future, given that redevelopment in the area is likely. In the immediate neighborhood, the city plans to build affordable housing on the site of the BMC West lumberyard; the Aspen Skiing Co. plans to redevelop the base of Buttermilk Mountain, and Pitkin County wants to renovate the airport.As a community we have a great opportunity to consider the future of the AABC, the report states. This neighborhood is effectively the entrance to Aspen due to the presence of Highway 82 and the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.The draft plan says 24 percent of respondents think the ABC is a focal area for future growth, and 24 percent think the downtown core is ripe for redevelopment.Although most residents involved in the community surveys viewed the ABC as a satellite of Aspen, a significant portion liked the idea of cultivating a small town environment at the ABC through redevelopment.When people assumed that the transportation system is substantially improved, they were willing to accept significantly more growth in the AABC area, according to the report. Only 13 percent wanted much more growth than exists today without transportation improvements. That number more than doubled to 34 percent when assuming substantial transportation improvements were in place.On the other hand, John McBride, the developer of the ABC, would like to see it remain the way it is a business park where people live and work. He would prefer that the ABC, which contains 180 businesses and 172 living units, should be left alone except for improvements to the roads, pedestrian access and transportation links.The minute you start dabbling in redesigning this, you are dealing with a different world, McBride said. Adding additional floors to the buildings goes against the original vision of pueblo-style low buildings set back from the highway. Dont turn it into a different animal.Pitkin County intends to draft a neighborhood plan for the area to address the level and type of development that should occur there.Cindy Houben, director of community development for Pitkin County, said there have been a host of meetings with land owners near the ABC, transportation officials and residents, who have discussed what the entrance to Aspen should look like. Were just juggling a bunch of balls in the air there, Houben said. That area is kind of an unknown. Everyones got a plan out there … those areas are ripe for redevelopment.McBride has been part of those meetings, although he said no real vision has come to fruition.At a minimum, county officials are working on a plan to improve the roads within the ABC, and foster better circulation for mass transit, pedestrians and cars.The majority of owners out here are saying leave it alone but fix the roads, put in street lights, angle parking and walkways, McBride said.Regardless of that position, it appears the AACP will contemplate the potential for expanding the ABC vertically, according to a policy theme stated in the document.

Critics of the process say a fundamental problem of the AACP update is that its purportedly based on citizens opinions, but the final outcome is crafted by bureaucrats and elected officials.Mayoral candidate and frequent government critic Marilyn Marks points to the future of historic preservation in the AACP as an example. Residents ranked historic preservation as a low priority in the community survey yet in the AACP draft, its a focal point. Further, the city government has spent a substantial amount of money and time devising new policies on historic preservation.I think there is a huge mismatch with what the public said is important and where we are spending our resources, she said. Lets be truthful about it … there seems to be an agenda-driven bias.What I am saying is dont try to take the data from the public and twist it to what they want it to be.Marks also points to statements of controlling growth in the AACP draft. The majority of residents who were surveyed said they are willing to accept either the same level of development as the present, or more with some controls. Yet, at a recent meeting between the county and city planning and zoning commissions, members said they want planners to put stronger statements in the AACP about controlling the rate of development.Given the 1,000 people involved in answering the clicker questions and surveys, and the small group meetings, many people would have the expectation that the majority opinions would be reflected in the AACP, Marks said. But the P&Z has the right to impose their own views on the plan, which may be in conflict with the citizens views as expressed in the survey work.McBride was involved in crafting the first AACP in 1993. He doesnt consider it a valuable process because at the outset participants are forced to accept certain underlying philosophies presented by the local government.A higher level of planning is needed in this town, he said, adding the AACP public process is inadequate. Its just a lot of street opinions in clicker sessions with people who have lived here for two years.

McBride said he served on the growth committee for the 1993 AACP, and was disappointed with the results because many of the goals and policy statements were overridden by the government.It was ludicrous, he said.The AACP is not intended to be a set-in-stone document, Gagnon said, but an evolving plan that reflects the values of the community as a whole.These are the biggest issues we face, the big nuts to crack, he said. Its a worthwhile thing to do and over time we make progress.Dozens of goals have been met as a result of the 1993 and 2000 AACPs, including dedicated bus lanes on Main Street, open space purchases on Smuggler Mountain, the designation of an urban growth boundary, hundreds of affordable housing units created and recreational trails built.

The AACP is Aspens version of a long-range comprehensive plan that the state requires all city and county governments to have. Its designed to be a community vision that uses direct democracy created literally by public comment.Its really an exercise of whats important to people, said Ben Gagnon, the citys special projects planner. In addition to supporting documents that analyze the state of the Aspen area and its economy, there have been more than a dozen meetings and surveys in which about 1,000 residents have helped to update the AACP. All the comments from the surveys and meetings laid the groundwork for two large public meetings held in January. About 450 people responded in real time to questions by punching their answers on a keypad. The results were shown almost immediately on a big screen so all could see.All that input has been interpreted by government planners and a draft plan has been presented to local elected officials. The city and county planning and zoning commissions are reviewing the document and making changes to it.

There will likely be one more public meeting in the coming months so community members can comment on the evolving document before its approved by the Aspen City Council and the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners.

Several goals werent fulfilled in 1993 and 2000, either because there was no political will or priorities changed over the years. A solution to the Entrance to Aspen is probably the best example of a goal unfulfilled.Some issues are always with us, Gagnon said. admitting the huge gap between the goal of reducing traffic and actual performance.In the surveys, residents agree traffic is the most important issue facing the area in the next five years.The transportation chapter in the AACP draft states that traffic is a 40-year-old issue in Aspen, and is difficult to address because of all the local, state and national that must agree on substantial improvements.As priorities in the community shift, so do the goals. Jessica Garrow, the citys long-range planner, said many AACP ideas have been worked on, but often policy makers decide that a given issue is not the topic of the day. Protecting locally-serving businesses through legislation, incentives or zoning has been a focal point since the 1993 plan, but affordable commercial space continues to disappear.But Gagnon points out that the 2000 AACP did give rise to substantial work on the topic, which will form the groundwork for future discussions. csack@aspentimes.com


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