Awakening Aspen |

Awakening Aspen

Janet UrquhartAspen Times Staff Writer

For a resort that had long prided itself on messy vitality, theres little about downtown Aspen thats either messy or vital.That frank assessment by an outside team of retail consultants is at the heart of the latest round of soul-searching by city officials and business owners. They generally agree that something must be done to revitalize the downtown core, though, in typical Aspen fashion, there is little agreement on what.Still, the once-glittering resort thats been feeling a little stodgy of late is letting its bleached-blonde hair down and, bit by bit, accepting the notion that changing with the times might just be a good thing.The resort that banned snowboarding on Aspen Mountain until just a few years ago has a multiyear deal to host the amped-up, baggy-panted thrill show that is ESPNs Winter X Games. The city has promised $400,000 over four years to help the Aspen Skiing Co. subsidize the event an expense the city manager is calling an investment in economic development.In conjunction with this years X Games, the city completely shut down five blocks in the core to accommodate an outdoor concert by post-punk band The Offspring. Less than a year ago, Jazz Aspen Snowmass wasnt allowed to close two blocks in front of the Wheeler Opera House to put jazz in the streets during its June Festival.One city official wondered privately if The Offspring concert would have had a shot at approval five years ago.Theres a different mentality that seems to be setting in, agreed Jim Horowitz, Jazz Aspen Snowmass executive producer, lauding the new attitude.The City Council has also agreed to spend $1.03 million to move the Aspen Chamber Resort Associations visitors center to a Main Street locale that visitors can actually find one of many recommendations from the consulting team, which presented its conclusions to the council last month.A trio of experts, two of whom spent considerable time in Aspen last fall, suggested a host of physical changes the resort could make to the core, along with relaxing the stifling regulations that have left the downtown stale and ossified.Its a little too 1970, said lead consultant Ford Frick of BBC Research and Consulting in Denver, urging the community to embrace its past without getting stuck in it.Weve been so focused on keeping the bad from happening, that we havent let the good happen, agreed Rick Jones, chairman of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board.Encouraging dwell timeThere are already small indications, however, of Aspens willingness to cut retailers some slack in a city that once had to amend its sign code just so a deli could display a rotating plate of cheese in its window. Now, portable signs and merchandise racks are creeping out onto the once-verboten public right of way outside shop doors.The city has placed temporary firepits on the malls this winter, giving nighttime pedestrians a warm, inviting place to gather. Plans for more permanent structures are in the works.The council is debating the placement of tables down the center aisles of the malls another consultant recommendation and finding a way to let restaurants serve alcohol out there.Its all about dwell time, according to consultant Henry Beer of CommArts, a Boulder-based design firm, who illustrated a multitude of ideas to make downtown Aspen a more inviting place to simply hang out.He teasingly pointed out the folly of over-regulation dysfunctional urban open space, physical barriers between stores and pedestrians, poorly lit overhangs and signs too small to read.The signage needs to be at a scale that is actually useful to somebody, he chided.Other ideas that emerged in his presentation included kiosks to help visitors find their way around; a wintertime hearth that becomes an outdoor kitchen for community dinners in the summer months; and an incubator alley where small startup businesses set up shop against the back walls of buildings, creating a marketlike feel and giving entrepreneurs a foothold in a resort with off-the-chart lease rates.Catalyst or bureaucrat?Among the consultants more controversial recommendations is the proposed hiring of a downtown catalyst, whose job would be to work with merchants and landlords to push downtown initiatives and act as a liaison with the city. Getting downtown property owners to back the creation of a Business Improvement District with its own taxing power could prove the catalysts most daunting assignment.Catalyst is the perfect moniker for the post, contends Mayor Helen Klanderud, who fears the push for change will fizzle as the economy recovers and outlooks brighten unless its someones job to follow through on the ideas. The city contemplated hiring a downtown manager last year, but backed off and decided to hire the consultants roughly a $78,000 expenditure as a first step.Frick and Beer conducted numerous interviews with business owners, hosted a series of public presentations and delved into a host of studies and reports that had already been done.Many of their recommendations were hardly new, the duo conceded. In fact, their conclusion that some downtown spaces are underused and could be redeveloped with larger buildings bringing new commercial space and housing into the core was a key element of Aspens proposed infill legislation. That rewrite of the city land-use code died a slow and painful death last year, though the City Council has taken up individual pieces of the overall proposal.Having people reside in the core is crucial, the consultants concluded, though the infill plans computer-generated image of a four-story Gap building with housing on the upper floors alarmed the legislations critics.Beers sketch of condos atop the one-story building was far more palatable.Infill was trying to sell someone a Porsche by showing them the wiring diagram, Beer told the council. We drew the car.This puts life to it, puts color to it, Klanderud agreed. This makes it look like it could happen.While many of the consultants suggestions have surfaced repeatedly, it may be that the ideas are finally cooked and may actually stick like pasta al dente tossed at a wall, observers predict.The City Council, though, has yet to decide whether or not it will hire the catalyst for a one-year trial. The business community appears divided on the need for one, though virtually everyone seems to support at least some of the consultants suggestions.Its going to take somebody like a downtown catalyst to implement the ideas and keep the ball rolling, said Steve DeGouveia, longtime owner of Footloose & Fancy Things. Something needs to be done to liven it up out there.Charles Wolf, owner of Cooper Street Pier, doubts a suitable candidate will take a job that may not last more than a year. But he supports many of the consultants ideas, most notably improvements to the local airport that could improve airline access a recommendation that also emerged last year from the local Economic Sustainability Committee.A downtown catalyst working on suggestions such as uniform operating hours among retailers is not a solution that will make a difference, Wolf contends.Im not sure that they need another bureaucrat, added Harley Baldwin, a downtown property owner and businessman. My fear is that its just someone else to come and run my business.But he concurs with many of the suggestions that have come up repeatedly, from bringing the Aspen Art Museum into the core to a downtown bandstand and improvements to what he calls the sylvan and bucolic malls.After several years of declining retail sales and vacant storefronts, due in large part to market forces beyond its control, Aspen appears generally receptive to making some changes to revitalize itself, Klanderud believes.Sometimes, it takes a near-death experience to make people rally, she said. I think these are exciting times and I think a lot is possible. Its exciting, being part of making things happen.I think the city is doing that now, instead of simply reacting.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is