Downtown infill plan: Livelier streets or shady ones?
December 19, 2002
A gravel parking lot in Aspen’s downtown core has long been the most profitable use of a prime piece of real estate, given the exactions the city would demand if its owner put a building there, city officials wryly note.The Aspen Area Community Plan calls for more housing in the central core and urges additional affordable housing above commercial establishments, but there’s nothing in the land-use code to facilitate movement in that direction, according to Chris Bendon, the city’s long-range planner.”Our land-use code says, ‘We dare you to try to do this,'” he said.Sweeping amendments to the code, however, would make a mixed-use building on that parking lot possible, both physically and financially, architects of the new regulations hope.A package of legislation dubbed “infill” – because it encourages the filling in of Aspen with new development rather than outward sprawl – was approved this week by the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission. The proposals will go to the City Council next month.The proposals allow taller buildings in the core, where the current height limit is 40 feet. The new regulations permit a 42-foot, three-story building or a 45-foot, four-story structure. On the 42-foot building, a partial fourth floor topping out at 52 feet is possible, but that requires special review and approval.For a frame of reference, check out the Independence Square building at the corner of Galena Street and Cooper Avenue. It’s 42 feet high at the cornice.The code changes would also do away with most of the existing “protected view planes” in the land-use code. These are views that theoretically can’t be blocked or impinged upon with new construction, though projects that impact a view plane have been approved in the past.The currently protected views include two views from the Pitkin County Courthouse; one from Glory Hole Park; the view toward Aspen Mountain from the front of the J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome; the view toward Independence Pass from the north side of Wagner Park; the view of the mountain from in front of the Cooper Street Pier; and the view toward the mountain from the second floor of the Wheeler Opera House.The P&Z agreed to retain the protected Wheeler view; members were split on the view plane from Wagner Park. Protections for the rest are eliminated with the infill package.The potential for taller buildings and lost views were among the most troubling aspects of infill for P&Z member Bert Myrin, the sole member who voted against the legislation.”What’s special about this town is you can see the mountains from all streets,” he said.Charles Wolf, whose family owns the Cooper Street Pier, laments the lost view-plane protections, particularly the one that guarantees sunshine and a partial view of Aspen Mountain from the popular bar and restaurant.”It goes beyond the loss of view. It goes to shade,” he said. “People do come in here because the sun does shine into the dining room.”Retaining the sunny side of the street is important all over town, he added.Wolf has been watching the infill legislation closely and, despite his concerns about views, he supports the effort overall.”Infill in general is a step in the right direction. We have to go that direction eventually,” he said.For a lot of building owners, adding another floor to a structure will make no sense even if infill makes it possible, predicted Wolf, who doesn’t envision a rush of new construction.”I don’t think this is going to spark a building boom, but it will make it possible for owners to replace aging infrastructure over time, and every town has to do that,” he said.Dramatic alterations to downtown Aspen is a big concern among infill’s detractors, but P&Z member Roger Haneman, too, believes change will come slowly.”My opinion is, over the next 10 years, you might see six new buildings at most in the downtown area,” he said.Nonetheless, the new regulations are written with rejuvenation of the downtown in mind, Bendon said.”What we hope to see is a rejuvenation of our commercial buildings, and that will contribute to a revitalization of our town,” he said.When a building needs to be replaced, the new regulations will make mixed-use structures possible, with commercial uses on the ground floor and a combination of free-market and deed-restricted housing on upper floors. Basically, the square footage assigned to free-market residences can’t exceed the square footage of the deed-restricted employee units.Components of the infill regulations aimed at the downtown core include:No more office uses on the ground floor, where the city wants to see retail and restaurant establishments that enliven the downtown pedestrian experience.New commercial design standards that call for buildings that meet the edge of the sidewalk and large windows on the ground-level storefronts, reminiscent of Aspen’s century-old commercial buildings. Split-level building fronts that create subgrade and above-grade retail spaces would no longer be permitted.No parking requirement for downtown building developments.Eliminating the requirement that one-quarter of a downtown parcel be left undeveloped, as urban open space. Developers can still do this, but where it makes no sense, off-site pedestrian amenities or a cash-in-lieu payment will be accepted, and the cash payment will be considerably less than what it currently costs to buy one’s way out of the open-space requirement. Also, the P&Z can halve the pedestrian-amenity requirement at its discretion.”Paradise Bakery has a wonderful space – it’s got all the right elements,” Bendon explained. “But 25 percent of every lot in town isn’t going to work out like that.”Small “alley stores” – separate retail spaces that front onto downtown alleyways – will be permitted. The idea came up in discussions on how to revitalize the downtown.”If somebody wants to do it, why should we be telling them they can’t?” Bendon said. “It might be a unique opportunity for a locally oriented business. I think they would be local destinations. Only a local is going to know where it is.”A property owner can tear down and replace existing square footage without being subjected to various mitigation requirements, such as providing affordable housing. Any new, additional space would have to be mitigated.In the past, the city has treated rebuilt space as if it were new growth and penalized property owners, Bendon noted.”To tear a building down and rebuild the same building is not growth,” he said.