Elected officials say time to clean up downtown Aspen’s messy vitality | AspenTimes.com

Elected officials say time to clean up downtown Aspen’s messy vitality

Temporary structures outside of restaurants were to be removed by May 1

The structure that has long sat outside of Jing restaurant on Main Street was no longer standing as of Friday, April 29, 2022, in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

A request from two Aspen restaurants to allow permanent roofs over their patios prompted elected officials last week to discuss whether to continue to give leeway in the land use code to allow temporary structures post pandemic.

The city for two years has allowed restaurants to put structures in the right of way and in parking spaces to make up for capacity limits due to COVID-19 restrictions, as well as a perceived loss of business.

With the May 1 deadline to remove those structures and resume restrictions in the current land use, representatives from Mezzaluna and Mi Chola asked if they could have a permanent covering over their patio areas without going through the city’s review process or mitigate for any growth in the business.

“To the extent that people have asked to enclose outdoor dining spaces in the past, we have been concerned that that becomes a doubling or increasing capacity, and that has impacts that need to be mitigated,” said Amy Simon, the city’s planning director in explaining to Aspen City Council why the land use code requires review and mitigation measures.

Construction on winterizing outdoor seating continues outside of Mezzaluna in downtown Aspen on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times archive)

Mezzaluna is in the permitting process for a porch-style space that has a roof, and the application must go through the city’s commercial design review process and the planning and zoning commission, which will take a few months, Simon said.

Mi Chola seeks a retractable awning over its patio, and Simon said that would be at staff review only.

Jing has not submitted a plan but has expressed interest in building a permanent structure with a roof but no sidewalls. Jing this past weekend was just tearing down its restaurant extension that protruded onto the Main Street sidewalk under relaxed pandemic rules.

City Attorney Jim True noted last week that any of the restaurants that enjoyed added space in the public right of way or on private property could apply for permanent structures.

The structure that has long sat outside of Kemo Sabe was no longer standing as of Friday, April 29, 2022, in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said as a matter of policy the rules should remain the same.

“I am going to stand with our existing approval to remove all the structures, and I am sorry to the businesses that would like to now enclose their patios with a permanent roof,” she said, adding that none of the structures would have been approved had it not been for the pandemic. “I miss the umbrellas, I miss the attraction, and I just see these places as steadily looking dark, and I‘ve always been very proud of the feeling of the downtown core, but it’s starting to feel — and we all put up with it during COVID — a little bit like Mr. Potatohead and let’s just stick something on wherever we can and call it good.”

Richards said she’s open to looking at the land use code to allow more outdoor space if it’s attractive and copacetic with the historic core.

“But to blow out 20 or 30 years’ worth of very, very carefully crafted land use planning and review in the downtown core over this, I can’t see it,” she said.

Mayor Torre said he has no issue with Mezzaluna’s proposal for a roof or any other restaurants. He said he brought the requests forward to have council discussion.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said if it weren’t for the pandemic, they would not be having the discussion.

He erred on the side of sticking with regulations on the books for now and is open to looking at new options in the future.

“There are reasons we have building codes,” he said. “That’s not to say that I think al fresco dining is not a thing to be pursued, but it should be pursued from a clean slate.”

The structure that has long sat outside of the French Alpine Bistro was no longer standing as of Friday, April 29, 2022, in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Council member Skippy Mesirow said he has had a different experience than his colleagues with the temporary structures.

“I felt like these structures were a return to some of the messy vitality that we say we miss,” he said. “To me, the negative trend has been the move to a more sterile environment where we can’t afford anything or enjoy local businesses.”

Councilman John Doyle said it’s a difficult decision since he knows some of restauranteurs who were asking for special dispensation.

“I think the right thing to do is to make it fair for everyone,” Doyle said, “so I believe that these temporary structures should be removed.”

Richards concurred that it’s a difficult decision.

“This isn’t easy for anyone,” she said, “and it makes me think, ‘Well, you know where I shouldn’t go for a margarita anymore.’”