City starts review of guidelines for development downtown
City officials have just begun to review a new master plan meant to guide future development downtown.The proposal outlines possible uses for city-owned properties such as Galena Plaza, the Rio Grande Parking Garage, the parking lots between the garage and Rio Grande Park, the Zupancis property, next to the former Stage 3 Theatres, and the Wheeler parcel, next to the Wheeler Opera house.The uses range from joint city-county facilities to affordable housing to a performing arts center – although city planner Ben Gagnon stresses that nothing is set in stone. The impetus for the plan, according to Gagnon, was that roughly six years ago, both the city and the county identified the need for more office space. Around the same time, the city adopted the Aspen Area Community Plan, which set a goal to house 60 percent of the city’s workers in and around the city. As luck would have it – bad luck – the city also discovered a leak in the roof of the Rio Grande Parking Garage, just underneath Galena Plaza.”One of the reasons why we started the Civic Master Plan in 2000 is that A) the roof was leaking, and B) there was a widespread understanding that Galena Plaza was a failed space,” Gagnon said. “We didn’t want to replace the roof and replace a failed space.”So the city formed a 25-member advisory group, which has spent the past six years looking at ways to integrate all of the goals while revitalizing underused spaces, such as Galena Plaza, and trying to redirect pedestrian traffic through certain areas.
This week, Gagnon presented the first draft of the master plan to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He said it’s merely a concept and that it gives no specific direction on whether to build particular buildings in particular spots in particular styles. Instead, he said, the plan outlines what the advisory group identified as the best potential uses of city-owned space to meet a comprehensive vision; trying to meet all of the goals in a piecemeal fashion, would result in a haphazard use of space.”It’s really meant to make a context for good decision-making in the future,” he said.Future building applications would have to be consistent with the Civic Master Plan, he said, as they must be consistent with the AACP now.”This would essentially be another level,” he said.Nonetheless, it sets the stage to build a potential arts center in the parking lot outside the visitor center, rising one floor above the garage. And, it opens the door for potential affordable housing in the parking lot next to the garage. There’s also the potential for a shared city-county facility on the Zupancis lot.Filling in those spaces posed potential problems for P&Z Commissioner Jasmine Tygre.
“What I really see is a … building plan,” a stern Tygre told Gagnon after his presentation.”I think the direction of the Civic Master Plan was wrong from the beginning, and when you start out with the wrong premise, this is what you end up with,” she said. “I would not start with the idea that the community is about buildings.”Sue Smedsted, who has been part of the task force from the beginning, contested Tygre’s implication that the plan was about filling in empty spaces.From the outset, she said, the group considered the history of the spaces under review and balanced that with the goals the various councils set out along the way.”This wasn’t ‘instant fill it with a building,'” she said. “That’s so far from what we did. … I cannot emphasize enough how comprehensive the process was. It was absolutely not about putting a building on every parking lot.”Commissioner Steve Skadron wanted more time to process the plan before passing final judgment.
“This went on for seven years,” he said. “I sat for one hour. I’m somewhat hesitant to be overcritical of this document.”Skadron said he wanted to balance needs such as open space against the demand for affordable housing, calling the conflicting goals “one of those really hard decisions where they’re both options.”Ultimately, he called the plan “comprehensive, insightful and full of purpose,” but he qualified by asking if “certain parts of this are more emotionally driven” than driven by practicality.If adopted, Gagnon said, the Civic Master Plan would replace the Rio Grande Master Plan, which governs Rio Grande Park and surrounding areas like the parking garage. But it would also give direction for the Zupancis property and Wheeler parcel. The City Council will make the final decision on whether to adopt the plan, but first it will return to P&Z, which will make recommendations to the council.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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