Guest commentary: Base2: The choice is yours, Aspen
October 13, 2015
"The challenge for all of us is to avoid growth that is inconsistent with the context and density and history of our built environment. … Our built environment is our competitive advantage. … I am unable to find the review criteria for (the Base2) planned development are satisfied. …" — Mayor Steve Skadron, June 1 public hearing, the lone "no" vote on Base2.
This election is important. A "no" vote on Base2 — Question 2A on the ballot — will continue the integrity of the Main Street Historic District. It will send a clear message to City Hall: "We agree with Skadron. Our built environment is our competitive advantage."
A "yes" vote would be a dangerous precedent would will likely produce: 1) A wall of zero-lot-line buildings along all of Main Street. 2) Continued expectations of public subsidies for private development. 3) Continued cronyism and backroom deals instead of fair rules applied to everyone.
Understand the basics: You aren't voting on whether you favor so-called "affordable" lodging over commercial uses at the Conoco lot across from Carl's Pharmacy. You aren't voting on any developer's promises. They aren't on the ballot. It's anyone's guess who will ultimately develop this site and to what end. You are voting on Ordinance 1 as approved by the City Council, namely:
• Fewer than two employees mitigated (versus the 15-plus employees actually generated).
• Zero on-site parking (versus the 20 spaces required by zoning).
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• Zero setbacks on each side (versus legally required 10 feet in the front and 5 feet on each side)
• Nearly 16,000 square feet (versus legally allowed 6,000 square feet).
• Thirty-two feet tall, and up to 45 feet for some elements (versus the legally allowed 28 feet).
What about the politics, cronyism and backroom deals? This project is a poster child for cronyism in City Hall. The Base2 developer has said it was the city's idea to put a lodge on the Conoco lot, a development that is indisputably incompatible with existing zoning (mixed use, a transitional zone intended to blend the commercial uses on Main Street into the residential uses of the West End). To accomplish its desired zero-lot-line box, the city dreamed up a rezoning in disguise called "planned development." Legitimate rezonings involve public notice and hearings that frustrate both determined residents and bureaucrats. Planned developments usually fly under the radar. Sort of like vampires. Aspen's planned development regulations require a minimum lot size (about a half-acre minimum) to apply planned development treatment. This is common around the country. The Base2 developer couldn't come close to satisfying that for such a small lot. The city was really doing a rezoning. How to fit the square-peg rezoning into the round hole of a planned development?
Enter the ultimate fixer and power broker in Aspen, the Community Development Department. There, the director is an unelected official. Under a code provision his department wrote, he's allowed to unilaterally and subjectively decide, without public notice, to apply planned development to any project of any size if he alone "believes there exists an opportunity to advance a significant community goal." In other words, a rezoning without a rezoning process. And notice also the entrance of a former councilman now serving the Base2 developer after he voted in favor of the development. These upzonings and insider deals have happened all across town. Follow the money and promises, including mutually back-scratching individuals and entities, and there's a pattern. A pattern voters can reject when they vote in November.
Beyond the cronyism, there are the broader implications for Aspen — the precedent for all of Main Street and beyond. Not just from this one project but from the trend and the cronyism that is fueling the trend. At stake is the very soul of Aspen. The Community Development Department argued that the Base2 development was appropriate under the planned-development regulations because of nearby zoning and development — a Colorado-hazy analysis, at best, with which Skadron disagreed. But what are the consequences of this kind of thinking? Assuming Base2 is approved with all of its variances and underhanded upzoning, surely the same reasoning that allowed those zero lot lines, tripling of underlying zoning and almost zero mitigation for affordable housing and parking also will apply to the other small lodges in Aspen along with the rest of the Main Street Historic District.
If you don't want to see the rest of the Main Street Historic District converted into a line of giant, big-box development with more or less no affordable-housing mitigation and without on-site parking, vote with Skadron and vote "no" on 2A.
You choose, Aspen.
Marcella Larsen is an Aspen land-use attorney.