Council looks to end downtown Aspen condo projects
August 28, 2012
ASPEN – Saying he wanted to end the pattern of “gun and puppy politics” that’s tainted negotiations between developers and the city in recent years, Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland on Monday night pushed for a resolution that sets a future tone of severe restrictions on free-market residential development downtown.
Council members voted, 3-2, to approve the resolution and two of its Ireland-sponsored amendments, which in effect give Community Development Department staff the direction for crafting an ordinance that will create code changes to give the item’s intent the force of law.
After more than two hours of debate at Monday night’s regular meeting, Ireland and Councilmen Torre and Steve Skadron voted to approve the resolution; Councilmen Adam Frisch and Derek Johnson opposed it.
Ireland said several times Monday night that he’s tired of seeing developers propose third-floor penthouse projects with their commercial building applications while also threatening to take away some other community amenity if they don’t get their way. Luxury free-market residences are driving development downtown and in the zoned district immediately east of it to the detriment of the area’s vitality, the mayor argued.
“I can see the day when somebody’s going to come in here and say, ‘Gee, there’s a nice lodge, it’s a 12,000-square-foot lodge, it exists right now on some corner, I’m going to buy it, and it’s going to be my house because I can afford to do it,'” Ireland said. “And that is a catastrophe. You do not prevent that unless you say, ‘It’s not going to be residential here, guys.'”
On April 2, the Aspen City Council voted, 3-1, to approve an ordinance to limit building heights of future projects in the downtown area to 28 feet. The limit bars three-story projects until the council decides to implement potential exceptions, such as new lodging facilities.
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That ordinance came about following the failure of an emergency ordinance proposed by Torre that would have set a similar restriction. In the two months between the time that Torre’s ordinance died because it couldn’t get the necessary four votes required for emergency passage and the point in early May when the April 2 ordinance took effect, developers flooded City Hall with 11 development applications, eight of which involve third-story penthouses. It was an apparent move by developers – who sensed that restrictions were on the way – to play under the old rules.
To Ireland, the fact that eight of those 11 development submissions are centered on luxury penthouse projects proves his point that the council needed to take stronger action.
“The proof is in what the market has told us when it was free to choose among those uses,” Ireland said. “And eight times out of 11, it chose the penthouse use. And it will choose the penthouse use so long as that is permitted.”
Ireland, who is serving his third and final term as mayor, said there is plenty of residential property in town available for sale, in the pipeline to be developed or under construction and that the downtown area doesn’t need any more.
Johnson said his concern is that the pendulum is swinging too quickly in the anti-development direction.
“I would prefer to have a discussion about how we can fix some of the things we don’t like but still allow, when appropriate, some free market, whether it be second floor or third floor,” he said.
Frisch said Ireland’s proposals were too restrictive, but the mayor replied that “we have to start here and work up instead of the other way.” Ireland also said there is “no shortage of three-story things to look at” in Aspen.
An oft-cited example of the “gun and puppy politics” that have dominated development discussions as of late was the proposal earlier this year in the 500 block of East Hyman Avenue involving the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings.
A local developer, Aspen Core Ventures, represented by Nikos Hecht, sought to build a three-story, mixed-use building (with a free-market component) in the vacant lot near Little Annie’s restaurant. The implication was that if plans for the new building were not approved by the city, the developer might raze the Little Annie’s building, which some consider to be a local treasure.
New three-story building projects have been criticized by many Aspen residents opposed to the proliferation of taller and larger structures that block mountain views and sunlight.
“We don’t need more dark space downtown,” Ireland told the other councilmen. The reference was not about dark sidewalks but rather his view of projects that claim to be a mix of commercial and residential uses, which in reality are driven almost entirely by the luxury-condominium development while the commercial spaces later sit empty.
“If we take away the gun, the puppies are safer,” the mayor said.
Torre, while voting along with the mayor and Skadron, suggested that he still wants the city to pursue certain exceptions in the staff’s future ordinance that will allow residential development as long as there is a substantial community benefit.