Looking back and forward, Aspen’s mayor feeling inspired
Accomplishments for city of Aspen in 2021 include progress on affordable housing, mental health
Just like the end of 2020, the city of Aspen capped off 2021 in an emergency state, although the circumstances were much different.
In the final week of 2020, the city declared a state of emergency in the wake of vandalism at three natural gas sites in town that left people without heat for days. It was the second emergency declaration that the city had made that year, with the first being the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
This year, it came via an emergency ordinance passed Dec. 8 by Aspen City Council declaring a six-month moratorium on new residential development and a nine-month pause on issuing permits for short-term rental properties.
“We are trying to look at a balance between our tourism and our resort economy, as well as our community,” Aspen Mayor Torre said this week while looking out on Rio Grande Park from the second floor of the new City Hall, which opened to the public last month.
Torre reflected on the work done in the municipal government in the past year, while functioning with a continuous pandemic disrupting everyday life in Aspen.
“This council is really doing a lot and I am happy to say that we are moving forward on the issues,” Torre said, recognizing that the goals of affordable housing and child care, as well as environmental stewardship in 2020 and 2021 are being carried into 2022. “Here we sit in an empty City Hall again because of COVID.”
Accomplishments in 2021
Despite the lingering virus, Torre said there have been some notable accomplishments made by council and staff, which include moving forward with plans to build a new child care center at Burlingame Ranch.
Seventy-nine units at that subdivision across from Buttermilk will come online this fall because of efforts by council and staff to get those ready as fast as possible.
Work leading to possible mandates on energy efficiency in commercial buildings and residential composting as part of the city’s climate action plan revved up at the end of 2021, and will lead to policy decisions for council in 2022.
“Our primary focus throughout the year started and ended with those three priorities of housing, child care and environmental progress, so I would say that 2021 was a success in moving those priorities forward, as well as putting lots of energy towards the mental health conversation in our community,” Torre said. “The goal for the city of Aspen is to raise awareness and support the resources that we have existing in our community and I am really proud that that conversation is going on as much as it is.”
The city added staff members to its communications team in an attempt to respond to residents in a more robust way and be proactive in sharing information on what the municipal government is up to.
“This council is really interested in connectedness with all of the city’s users,” he said. “I think another success is the support we have given to our staff but also our community. I think this council is not only proactive but also very responsive.”
He cited a traffic study that council agreed to commission for West End residents concerned about the number of cars using side streets to leave town in the afternoon, along with response to ongoing needs from the business community related to the pandemic, and constituents concerned about quality-of-life issues related to development.
The moratorium is in response to the real estate market explosion in Aspen over the past two years, and the proliferation of short-term rentals in single-family homes and condos.
City officials say the impacts of speculative real estate activity is putting negative pressures on the local workforce, available housing, traffic, the environment and the quality of life that is emulated in the Aspen Area Community Plan, which is a guiding document that is used to make policy decisions.
The pause is meant to realign the city’s policies and land-use regulations on growth as they relate to the city’s climate action plan and affordable housing mitigation.
Torre said the scope of work is limited and hopefully it will get done in short order.
“I understand it’s been an interrupter for some people but it should not be a tremendous interrupter,” he said. “Our intention is to get in and out quickly.”
Torre was re-elected this past March to a two-year term as mayor and he said most of his interactions with constituents has been positive.
“I think the word is ‘appreciative,’” he said. “I think people have at least respected this council for taking on and trying to do the hard work to move the needle on some very difficult issues.”
Torre and the majority of council successfully presented a ballot question to Aspen voters this past fall that will divert money from the real estate transfer tax dedicated to the Wheeler Opera House for other arts and culture community uses.
Funneling that money for other needs in the community had been a yearslong debate, and now it is settled.
“I’m really happy about the question being passed, but I don’t really celebrate that kind of thing because it’s part of the job,” Torre said. “In the end we were able to come up with a basic question that supports arts and culture in our community, which is another thing that I think this council is really interested in re-upping the arts and not just on the highest level like we have with the music festival and the ballets and theater in the park, but art on every level, arts for every Aspenite.”
There is plenty of work to be done on how to distribute that money in the coming years, Torre acknowledged, along with many other challenges facing the community like dealing with the fact that many longtime, affordable restaurants and bars have closed due to one development interest led by Mark Hunt.
“It’s the further erosion of locally serving and community based establishments and business models changing into really high-end tourism dependent ones,” Torre said. “We’re seeing local places squeezed out and then the rents get higher and therefore the costs get higher and then the prices get higher and the accessibility gets lower.”
Much of what is controlled by Hunt and his investors are buildings that are boarded up, and the two that are under construction are moving at a slow pace.
“So much of it is out of our control,” Torre said. “The city has difficulty in regulating the pace of construction and has not had any performance bonds in place so we are kind of stuck there but it’s in the city’s best interest and working to help get these projects completed.”
What all of it means for Torre is more office hours and work by council.
“I see the challenges ahead as opportunity,” he said. “I think that is the same for the rest of this council, we know the work that is required and we are up to the task.
“In 2022, there is no place I’d rather be than Aspen, Colorado.”
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