Experts: Downtown needs work |

Experts: Downtown needs work

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Much can be done to make downtown Aspen more inviting, but somebody has to take the lead.

That, at least, appeared to be the consensus Wednesday after a pair of consultants wrapped up their analysis of the cause and effect of Aspen’s “downtown malaise” and offered thoughts on how to cure it.

A show of hands among about 60 representatives of the business community at the meeting indicated support for a downtown “catalyst” whose job is dealing with issues that affect retailers.

Yesterday’s session was the final in a series of meetings between merchants and a consulting team hired by the city to assess what ails the retail environment and make recommendations. A final report will be the focus of a presentation to the City Council in January.

The council debated the need to hire a downtown manager earlier this year, but backed off on the plan and decided to hire the consultants as a first step.

Consultant Henry Beer, whose Boulder-based design firm CommArts has been involved in the make over of resorts such as Beaver Creek, offered a frank assessment of downtown Aspen and a series of sketches depicting improvements to make the core more inviting.

“You are right at the cusp of being able to make the downtown remarkably user friendly … where people linger,” he said.

Beer’s sketches depicted well-lit storefronts with shop signs large enough to read, outdoor seating areas and merchandise displayed outside. Tables and seats filled the center aisle of the Hyman and Cooper Avenue malls. In the wintertime, one of those aisles could contain a couple of long ice rinks for youngsters to skate on, he suggested.

Loosening up on the city’s regulations would allow shop owners to do more inviting things outside their storefronts, he advised. Right now, Beer observed, the core appears stuck in the past.

“It’s a little too 1970,” said consultant Ford Frick of BBC Research and Consulting in Denver. “This town has talked messy vitality for 25 years. I don’t know if you really believe it. There’s very little that’s messy. There’s very little that’s vital in this downtown.”

Other ideas that emerged in the sketches included kiosks to help visitors find their way around; a wintertime fire pit that becomes an outdoor kitchen for community dinners in the summer months; a combination gas station/visitors center at Local’s Corner; and an “incubator alley” where small start-up businesses set up shop against the back walls of buildings, creating a marketlike feel.

“This place needs a visitors center,” Beer declared. “We don’t want to stick it in the back somewhere.”

He also depicted what a three-story building where the Gap building sits might look like, adding housing above the commercial space. He sketched a similar vision at the site of the former Eddie Bauer store.

Aspen’s infill legislation, a comprehensive rezoning overhaul that the City Council is now taking up piece by piece, envisioned much the same thing. In fact, many attendees noted, a lot of these ideas aren’t new.

“I’d love to see the political courage to implement any of it,” said Councilman Tim Semrau. “It’s all common sense in a way. It’s just going to require some serious political will.”

The physical changes are but one path Aspen can take to address the retail woes evidenced by declining sales and increased vacancies, according to Frick. His firm conducts economic feasibility and market studies.

A national economic downturn gets a good deal of the blame for what’s happening, but the consultants aren’t recommending Aspen sit back and hope for a turnaround.

“Hope is not a plan,” Frick said.

Instead, the resort can improve the local airport and support institutions that bring in visitors, including Aspen’s cultural organizations and the Aspen Skiing Co., he said. A downtown events venue and special events that draw in valley residents can help revitalize the core.

The city could create a zone where nonretail uses are not allowed in ground-floor commercial spaces, Frick added, but he cautioned the city to weigh such a move carefully. It could create more vacancies, he said, and timeshare sales offices are likely to vacate those spaces after the projects are sold anyway.

Beer suggested a residential real estate “pavilion” to showcase various real estate developments.

“How can we leverage that into something that is singular and unique to this place?” he said.

Ford noted the lack of organization within the retail community, suggesting the hiring of an individual to act as the merchants’ representative and liaison to the city.

“The question is, will anyone step forward and carry the torch for this organization?” he said.

When the consultants present their formal recommendations to the city early next year, it will be up to the City Council to make some decisions about what ideas it wants to pursue, said Mayor Helen Klanderud.

“I’m very excited about everything I see here,” she said.

GrassRoots TV taped the meeting for rebroadcast on Channel 12. It is scheduled to air today at 3:30 and 8 p.m., on Friday at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is]

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