City redefines remodeling rules | AspenTimes.com

City redefines remodeling rules

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen has redefined “demolition” versus “remodeling” with an emergency action by the City Council on Tuesday.

The council adopted an emergency ordinance by a 4-0 vote, but placed a 90-day expiration date on the new rules. Council members expect a broader set of land-use code revisions that address the issue to come before them before the ordinance sunsets.

Concern over the recent redevelopment of apartment buildings that had been providing free-market housing for local residents prompted the council’s call for emergency action. But after deliberating Tuesday, some members wondered if they shouldn’t back off.

“I’m uncomfortable passing something like this on an emergency basis,” said Councilman Tim Semrau.

And, one local developer warned the council the new regulations could foster “slum” apartments.

The new definition of demolition will apply to all structures, but it’s of particular significance for multifamily buildings. The demolition of a free-market, multifamily building requires the replacement of half of the units with deed-restricted worker housing. Simply remodeling a building does not trigger the housing requirement.

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The city’s old definition of remodeling, however, was so liberal it allowed the near-demolition of apartment buildings and their reconstruction as condos with no affordable housing.

The new rules adopted Tuesday redefine a remodeling. The old rules required the retention of 50 percent of the exterior walls to qualify as a remodeling project versus demolition. The new regulations require the retention of at least 60 percent of the existing structure, including walls, roof and components necessary for structural integrity. In the case of multifamily buildings, removing the old interior partition walls constitutes a demolition under the new rules.

The new rules would have prevented the ongoing remodeling of old apartments in the building behind the US Bank on Main Street, said developer Greg Hills.

That project, in which just the back wall and two side walls were retained, could not have been done without removing the old partition walls to facilitate much-needed replacement of plumbing and electrical components inside those walls, Hills said. Nine old units in the building are being replaced with nine new ones.

If the work had been considered a demolition, requiring the replacement of half of the apartments with affordable housing, Hills said he and his partners would not have undertook the project. The redevelopment would have been financially impossible, and nothing would have been done with an “embarrassing” building, he said.

“For buildings that are inadequate, what you’re going to get is a slum,” he said. “A building like that could not be repaired.

“What happens at the end of the day is the bad buildings are going to get much worse. You’re not going to fix them,” Hills warned the council. “I can name a bunch of them in town that this will apply to.”

“The way this is structured, you’re going to end up with slum by ordinance,” agreed Fonda Paterson, who owns the Boomerang Lodge with her husband, Charlie.

The Patersons wondered how the regulations would impact a three-unit building they own and rent to lodge employees.

Hills’ project will replace the nine old apartments with nine condos that he said will be sold to local residents, most of whom plan to rent them out.

A 260-square-foot studio with 7-foot ceilings that rented for $1,000 plus utilities will be rebuilt with the same square footage, but it will be an all-new unit with 9-foot ceilings and will rent for more like $1,300, he said.

“What would you rather have, a 260-square-foot firetrap or a nice unit for $300 more?” Hills said.

The core issue, said City Manager Steve Barwick, is whether the housing replacement requirement is or isn’t too onerous. Developers have been going to “absurd” lengths to keep just enough of an old building intact to avoid the housing mitigation that comes with a demolition, he said.

The city originally established the housing replacement rule to stem the tide of demolitions of multifamily buildings that replaced worker housing with second-home condos.

“Well, it worked. Twelve years ago, it stopped the demolition of those buildings and they’re getting rundown,” Semrau said.

But the councilman was hesitant to rush through the new regulations. An emergency ordinance goes into effect immediately, rather than 30 days after adoption. The council considered it on first reading Monday and adopted it a day later.

“The big danger of this is we don’t want to freeze worker housing in a slum state,” Semrau said. “This is an important ordinance for the future of this town.

“Yes, we wanted this to come forward quickly ? unfortunately, like everything, this brings up more questions than it answers.”

“I’m concerned we’re going to just barrel ahead with this and not get the result we want,” agreed Councilman Tony Hershey, who reluctantly agreed to support the ordinance after Semrau suggested the expiration date so the measure wouldn’t remain in effect indefinitely.

Emergency ordinances require a “super majority” vote by four of the five council members. With Councilman Terry Paulson absent, the approval of all four members present Tuesday was necessary.

Mayor Helen Klanderud urged passage of the ordinance as a “holding measure” until a broader package of new infill regulations comes before the council. The infill legislation, now before the Planning and Zoning Commission, will contain a number of land-use code revisions aimed at fostering new development and redevelopment, including a relaxation of existing regulations to make replacement of multifamily buildings easier, said city planner Chris Bendon.

Without the emergency action, however, Barwick predicted the city would see more remodeling projects that take advantage of the existing code.

“I think there is an argument to be made for getting something down now,” he said.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]