How high is too high in Aspen?

Abigail EagyeAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Aspen is zeroing in on new design standards for commercial buildings in the city. The proposed changes include creating a lower range of maximum building heights as well as reducing the square footage developers can build relative to the size of their lots.The City Council met with consultant Nore Winter on Monday to go over the latest draft of the new commercial design standards.One of the main goals in redesigning the standards was to discourage boxy buildings.The solution involves more than 100 pages of guidelines on everything from acceptable building materials to where to place public spaces.But the driving force behind controlling the mass of new buildings is lowering the “floor area ratio.” In short, if you own a 1-foot-by-1-foot lot, and you build a one-story building covering the entire square foot, that’s a floor area ratio (FAR) of 1:1. If you build two stories, it’s 2:1; three stories would be 3:1. In all three scenarios, if a builder were to use the maximum FAR and build to the maximum allowable height, the result would essentially be a box. It’s a scenario that developers present to the city on a regular basis, and they regularly hear the cry, “Do something about the massing and scale.”Current codes allow a FAR of as much as 3:1 in some parts of town, with maximum heights of up to 42 feet in the commercial core.Winter and members of the city’s Community Development staff believe that by lowering the allowable FAR to 2.75:1 in the commercial core, developers won’t be able to design boxes. Even if a building calls for three stories, because of the new FAR limit, the third story could only cover 75 percent of the other two floors. That would create variations in the shapes of new buildings, they say. Other portions of the new guidelines address where the top-floor “massing” should be located – along the street front in some scenarios, toward the back of the building in others. It depends on the part of town and the relationship to neighboring buildings.Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss remained opposed to any 42-foot buildings in Aspen, calling them “obscene.”But several people attending the meeting noted that there probably aren’t a dozen locations in town that could rise to that 42-foot height. Additionally, FAR and heights won’t be a given for all new buildings. The city would dangle those maximums out as incentives for developers to meet other city goals, such as building required affordable housing on-site rather than paying cash in lieu of on-site housing.The new design standards also require a minimum 2-foot height difference from one city lot to the next. So if a building reaches 42 feet on one lot, someone building a new building next door would be capped at 40 feet to keep building heights varied along city blocks. And if a developer owns three adjacent parcels, the guidelines limit the number of stories on at least one of the three lots.The proposed guidelines also suggest limiting new construction to two stories next to one-story historic landmarks in the city.Several members of the Planning and Zoning Commission and one from the Historic Preservation Commission were on hand for Monday’s meeting – not enough for those commissions to vote on the latest draft. All three entities will meet again April 4 for a public hearing on the proposed new guidelines.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is