Does Aspen’s economic make-up need a shake-up?
ASPEN ” If one looks carefully around downtown Aspen, they’ll realize it’s a lot harder to find a place to eat than to buy a piece of expensive clothing.
That’s the conclusion city officials have come to after they recently walked the entire downtown area, counting the number of stores in different categories. What they added up is alarming to some observers.
In the commercial core as a whole, the number of office, home furnishings and clothing stores far out number restaurants, nightlife establishments and coffee shops ” more than 3 to 1. On the pedestrian malls, where it’s essential to have vitality, that ratio jumps 4 to 1, city staff said.
The inventory in the commercial core zone district consists of 94 clothing and personal accessory stores, 34 home furnishings and accessories stores, 20 offices, and six sundries shops. In the same area, 42 restaurants, coffee shops or nightlife establishments exist.
On the pedestrian malls, there are only 10 restaurants, nightlife establishments or coffee shops, compared to 28 clothing and personal accessories stores, 9 home furnishings stores, four offices and one pet store.
It’s the same story in other commercial zones throughout Aspen.
As a result, city staff proposes to prohibit certain uses on pedestrian malls, urging elected officials to make a public policy statement that specific stores don’t belong there. Those would include exclusive designer and luxury brand merchandise, jewelry stores and offices.
City staff also proposes to remove “retail” from the list of permitted uses on pedestrian malls and require any new applicant to meet several conditions if retail was to be put there.
Additionally, staff proposes that the city make it easier and more attractive for restaurant owners to set up shop on the malls. That could be in the form of waiving city fees like building permits and liquor licenses.
“Staff believes this combination of code amendments will tend to slowly and steadily transform the pedestrian malls from an area that is currently dominated by retail stores, into an area featuring uses that build on the pedestrian nature of the mall, increasing vitality and ultimately establishing a unique destination,” wrote special projects planner Ben Gagnon in a report to the City Council.
City planning staff decided that for the purpose of addressing public policy concerns with regard to walk-about vitality and commercial mix, the inventory count was limited to only first floor, split-level and basement uses. The approach was taken to reflect the pedestrian experience of Aspen’s downtown core.
Staff’s recommendation has been presented to the Aspen City Council and the board of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. The issue is scheduled to be discussed this week at the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission meeting.
“The council generally likes the ideas and wanted more information on what other cities have done and what has worked,” Gagnon said. “People have been talking about this for years and even if nothing happens, it’s still worthwhile to have a conversation about it …
“A lot of people have drawn the conclusion that we’re going to change it but we don’t think major surgery is needed.”
Staff believes the ratio is somewhat out of balance, with too much emphasis on office, clothing, home furnishings and not enough on restaurant and nightlife uses that generate more vitality. They are particularly concerned that the pedestrian malls are even more out of balance than the rest of downtown as a whole.
However, the balance of retail versus restaurant is not a new concern. The issue was brought up in the 1993 Aspen Area Community Plan, as well as the 2000 version.
“I think there is a problem and there was back in 1993,” said City Councilman Jack Johnson, adding he is frustrated that the economic make-up of Aspen hasn’t been dealt with by previous administrations. “When these things have been issues for years what you don’t do is not take any action.”
The concerns also were repeated by the City Council and the planning and zoning commission in a joint meeting regarding dead spots in downtown, a loss of vitality and too many high-end stores. Officials discussed the exclusivity and the need for more vitality and diversity.
“We need vitality and how we can accomplish that, I don’t know,” said City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss, adding activity on the pedestrian malls slow down in the early evening. “I would like the vitality to extend into the evenings.”
Gagnon said if a balance isn’t struck, the problem is only going to get worse.
“If you follow the trend, we are going to have problems,” he said. “Quotas are to prevent things from getting out of balance.”
Johnson believes government intervention is needed but not without a community-wide discussion first.
“We will be engaging the community and we’ll be engaging the restaurant and business owners,” he said. “We won’t continue to sweep it under the rug like we have since 1993.”
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