City ponders how to preserve character
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN With a number of local landmarks facing possible extinction, the city of Aspen has decided to put a halt to interior renovations in the downtown core. Most recently, the historically popular restaurant the Red Onion announced plans to shut down in March.One of the stated goals of the moratorium is to protect Aspen’s tourist-driven economy, which “is dependent upon the … unique historic character of its central business district.”Everyone who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting recognized the desire to preserve Aspen’s character, some for sentimental reasons, others for economic reasons.”I speak from the heart and not the mind,” said a waitress from the ill-fated restaurant. “The Onion’s not just the bar … It’s far more than that.”The Red Onion building itself dates back to the silver boom of the late 1800s, and in the 1940s, it became home to one of Aspen’s first après-ski spots. As such, it has earned a spot in Aspen history not just for the historic value of the structure, but for the innumerable memories created in the restaurant.Nonetheless, it’s through efforts to protect Aspen’s buildings that the council seeks to protect such memories – and perhaps create more.Stan Clauson, chairman of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, recalled a different approach to revitalizing the town’s business core in 2001. In response to a sluggish economy that threatened Aspen with empty storefronts, Aspen established the Economic Sustainability Committee.”We were extremely worried at that time that Aspen was losing its ability to attract visitors,” he said.Clauson cited several strategies from that effort that helped bring vitality to the city’s core without a building ban, including city projects to encourage people to “dwell” on the pedestrian malls and adoption of Aspen’s infill codes (which the council is scrutinizing as part of the first moratorium).Clauson cautioned that the new moratorium would undo the effects of the city’s earlier efforts by eliminating the “continuity” of businesses on the mall, creating dead spaces. That detracts from the Aspen experience, he said, discouraging tourists from visiting and harming the local economy.Councilman Jack Johnson, too, remembered the Economic Sustainability Committee. But he cited portions of it that recognized that “Aspen’s unique character is an economic benefit” and that the community should be concerned over the loss of locally serving businesses.Clauson empathized with the community’s plight to save popular businesses, but he said the attrition of stores is part of the natural changes of a town, despite the pangs of the losses.”We have to be in a position to move forward and allow a natural progression,” he said. “I think this could be a disaster.”Councilwoman Rachel Richards, a nearly 30-year veteran of Aspen, acknowledged the city can’t stop change and that certain changes can be healthy, but she cautioned against a direction toward a “homogenized” city.”We are losing something,” she said. “We are losing a sense of uniqueness, a sense of character … that has been very disappointing to our repeat guests.”Richards recalled Aspen’s more storied past as a “wild and crazy” place whose energy attracted outside visitors.But a new “elitism” has replaced that former energy, she said, and one of the most frequent comments she hears from return visitors is, “I don’t fit in this community. These [stores] are for the upper 5 percent or 1 percent of the country.”She acknowledged that the upscale store owners, like any other store owner, have a right to operate in Aspen.But, she said, “by everybody taking their share out, we die the death of a thousand cuts.”Mayor Helen Klanderud, the sole opposition to the new moratorium (and the existing one), agreed with Clauson and other ACRA members who said government regulation was precisely the wrong way to go.A longtime Aspenite herself, Klanderud recalled from personal experience the “wild and crazy” days Richards described. But, she said, most people then were single and in their 20s, and the town’s regulations were much looser, allowing the town to be wilder and crazier.The mayor seemed to find it ironic that the city would look to stiffer regulations to recapture an era that was defined by a lack of regulation. The corporate approach, she said, is counter to what the council is trying to achieve.Jasmine Tygre, who will replace Richards as a temporary council appointee in January, will be the one to actually work through the issues. She supported the council’s decision.”What are we going to say 10 years from now – we had an opportunity to do something and didn’t do it?” she asked. “This just gives us the time to talk it out.”Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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