Infill: Capping growth, but scrapping the competition
(This is the first in a series of articles detailing various components of Aspen’s proposed infill land-use code amendments. Among the proposals are significant changes to the Growth Management Quota System. Here’s why.)Twenty-six years ago, when Aspen found itself too popular for its own liking, city officials used the land-use code to slam the brakes on runaway growth.The Growth Management Quota System was established to cap growth at 2 percent annually.It forces developments to compete for growth allotments. The best projects, as determined by the Growth Management Commission ? the combined Aspen and Pitkin County Planning and Zoning commissions ? garner the most points and are awarded some or all of a year’s allotment for new commercial space, lodge units, duplexes or whatever. Losers can try again next year.”Growth Management was super heavy on process, and that process was extremely subjective,” said Chris Bendon, Aspen’s long-range planner.It asks developers to tie up large sums of money on a property and then enter a costly process culminating in the once-a-year awarding of allotments with no guarantee they’ll win the ability to build anything.Instead, developers seek exemptions to GMQS. For a free-market residence, escaping the growth competition is as simple as adding a caretaker unit to the property. It doesn’t even have to be occupied.What has evolved is what has been nicknamed the “Growth Exemption System.” Years pass without a competition in any category, though development is still tallied to ensure growth doesn’t exceed 2 percent a year.”Generally, I think any consultant would advise their client to find a development that works for them and that avoids Growth Management,” said Mitch Haas, a former city planner who now works in the private sector.The first thing Haas said he does for a client is comb through the GMQS exemptions to find the one that works best for a potential development.”There’s a terrible level of uncertainty in the process,” according to Haas. “You really have no idea what you’re going to get out of it.”Apparently, those seated on the other side of the table aren’t crazy about GMQS, either.”You know, I always hated that process. The scoring was so askew. It was very subjective,” said Sara Garton, former chairwoman of the city P&Z. “The whole thing was such an arbitrary process. I didn’t think it was equitable at all.”Aside from the subjectivity of the scoring, developers have to take their potential competitors into consideration, as well. They may wind up loading so much into a project to win points and beat the competition that it no longer makes financial sense to build it, Haas explained.But that, in general, was the idea: The city would get great projects with a lot of public benefits as developers strove to come up with exceptional projects.Instead, developers avoid the whole process like the plague, and the great benefits aren’t forthcoming.”I’ve been here six years. I’m the senior planner here, and I’ve had one Growth Management application,” Bendon said. “I was blown away by the amount of process we had to go through for one simple project.”For a developer, what they want to know is, what do you want?” he said. “Our growth system said, we want empty homes in our lodging district, in our office district, in our commercial district.”Free-market homes became among the easiest and most profitable thing for a developer to build. The GMQS exemption is easy, and developing an office building in the office district is all but impossible, given the exactions demanded by the land-use code and the onerousness of GMQS, Bendon noted.Bendon has been the point man in drafting the proposed infill legislation, approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday and headed for the City Council next month.The sweeping land-use code revisions retain growth control, but there is no Growth Management Commission and no competition.Instead, the legislation outlines what can be constructed in each of the city’s various zone districts and clamps down on the development of projects that aren’t appropriate, like a single-family residence on the downtown pedestrian mall (someone actually proposed just that).Growth is still limited and only so much is allowed annually in each category, but approved projects would automatically qualify for the allotments on a first-come, first-served basis.For example, 28,176 square feet of commercial space can be built each year within the 2 percent cap on commercial growth.”We still have growth management. We still have the 2 percent growth rate. The practicality is what we’ve really tackled,” said Julie Ann Woods, director of the city’s Community Development Department.There is a difference, Woods noted, between growth and change.”We aren’t managing change, we’re trying to manage growth,” she said.Change is not only allowed, but actually accomplishable through the infill proposals, according to Bendon. And, since the biggest concern with change is usually what it will look like, the infill legislation establishes a Commercial Design Review, to be conducted by the P&Z, for all commercial and lodging projects, as well as mixed-use developments with a commercial component.The design criteria define how a building should interact with the street and set standards for pedestrian amenities. They require things like large windows for street-level retail establishments and the screening of rooftop mechanical equipment so it isn’t visible from the pedestrian level.The Commercial Design Review is but one of many proposed amendments to the regulations that apply to Aspen’s commercial core, which has recently become the focus of various revitalization efforts. How infill may foster downtown redevelopment and a new vitality.[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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