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Infill plans move ahead

Janet Urquhart

Aspen’s attempt in the 1970s to clamp down on growth is working too well these days in at least one respect – it is making “infill housing” virtually impossible to achieve.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a committee that has been studying the issue since last June. The group, guided by city planner Chris Bendon, posed a critical question to the City Council Monday: Is Aspen willing to relax the rules to make infill happen? The qualified answer was “yes.”

Infill – putting affordable housing here and there by filling in nooks – is not financially feasible for a property owner, given the exactions in Aspen’s land-use code, according to Bendon. Yet infill is an oft-stated goal in the city’s updated community plan.

“The community plan talks about infill – in the first 25 action items, 13 of them refer to infill,” he said.

But the vision outlined in the community plan and the reality of the land-use code hardly jibe, Bendon said.

Required housing mitigation, open space or a payment in lieu, view-plane restrictions, limitations on floor area and an onerous review process effectively prohibit infill from occurring most of the time, he said.

“What we’ve ended up with is almost suburban development in our downtown,” Bendon said.

The easiest and best use of the town’s platted lots is a single-family home. High-priced homes are popping up in the lodge zone, the business district and on the periphery of the commercial core.

Go stand on Hopkins Avenue between Spring and Original streets in the city’s office district, advised Bendon. “Look around. There’s not one office. That’s all gone to residential.

“More and more, our East End, our multifamily zone, is filled out with duplexes or single-family buildings,” he continued.

Yet the opportunity for additional housing and other redevelopment exists. The city won’t see it, though, unless it changes the rules, Bendon said.

With some computer-manipulated images of sites around town, Bendon offered examples of what could occur. He superimposed the Seventh and Main affordable housing project, now under construction, on the site of the Aspen Manor, a vacant lodge.

He put the Benedict Commons housing development on the vacant lot at the corner of Hunter and Hyman. He put one, two and three more stories on The Gap building. At four stories, it was still shorter than the Elks Club building next door.

Oddly, much of the historic development in the downtown core, built before the city enacted zoning rules, is what the committee envisions now. They are multistory buildings that fill up their lots.

“Since really the advent of building codes, we’ve made buildings like this pretty much illegal,” Bendon said.

“We have all these great, substantial old buildings. We should have more great, substantial buildings that are of our time,” said Suzannah Reid, chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Commission and an infill committee member. “I would support that in the commercial core.”

The Gap building, said Bendon, is “a good start to what could have been a great building.”

Under the current code, adding a second floor to the structure would require housing mitigation of another one and one-third floors, plus an open space payment and parking. The code, however, only allows another one-third of a floor, so the developer would have to pay mitigation of $520 per square foot instead.

“We say we want it, but then, it’s not legal. You can’t do it,” Bendon said.

At one story of retail, a second-floor mix of office and housing and a third floor of housing, the redevelopment begins to make financial sense. With two floors of commercial and two floors of housing, it makes even more, Bendon said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of potential,” he said. “There are a lot of buildings in our downtown that are one story.”

The committee, made up of citizens and representatives of the council and various advisory commissions, plans to come up with specific code revisions to present to the full council.

Putting them in place will take some courage, warned committee member Ron Erickson.

“This is a major departure from what the thinking in this town has been for the last 20 years,” he said.


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