Majority of council: No new residences in downtown Aspen

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – There was no official vote, but the Aspen City Council on Monday night hammered out a land-use policy for the downtown area that seeks to deny developers the right to build new free-market residential units.

Also during a three-hour discussion within a meeting that lasted more than six hours, the council signaled that it would make other changes to the municipal land-use code that sets rules for the two commercial districts in the town’s center. A majority of council members decided that exceptions to the recently instituted 28-foot height limit will be allowed only for lodging and other commercial uses, such as office or restaurant spaces.

The 28-foot height limit will remain in place for all two-story buildings. The council also indicated that it wants to get rid of the first-floor prohibition on office space on the north side of Main Street. Offices already are located along that stretch of Main Street, having been grandfathered in. Removal of that prohibition will mean that those office properties will conform to the city’s land-use code.

An official vote and another public hearing on the height issue and related matters is planned for the council’s Dec. 10 regular meeting.

The direction to city Community Development staff was split among familiar lines, with Councilmen Torre and Steve Skadron generally agreeing with Mayor Mick Ireland and Councilman Derek Johnson believing the pendulum has swung too far against development opportunities.

Councilman Adam Frisch said after the discussion that he’d prefer to pause and reflect on setting new policies, suggesting that the 28-foot height limit adopted in April should remain in place through much of next year while the city monitors the effect of eight building applications that call for third-story penthouses to be built atop commercial structures. Those applications were filed before the city implemented the 28-foot rule earlier this year in response to the recent trend of free-market penthouse development at the expense of commercial vitality.

Early in the meeting, Community Development Director Chris Bendon argued for the continuation of a mix of uses in the downtown area, including residential development. His department’s plan outlined several options but argued in a memorandum and vocally for maximum heights “that reflect Aspen’s historic character” in the range of 36 feet to 40 feet within the two downtown commercial areas. Such heights would essentially allow three-story developments, except in instances when those developments conflict with city regulations that protect views of Aspen Mountain.

Skadron took a passionate approach toward the end of the talks by saying Aspen already has enough three-story buildings with more on the way, including the new Aspen Art Museum and the commercial building that is being planned for the vacant corner near Little Annie’s restaurant as well as the eight other penthouse applications that squeaked into the process before the council set the 28-foot maximum-height restriction.

“I’ve been a more ardent supporter of this 28-foot building height not because I’m against three-story buildings but because we have them already,” he said in a comment directed toward Frisch. “And we have (more of them) coming. How many more are you desirous of having?”

Ireland offered a Powerpoint presentation that showed how upzoning – allowing greater building heights – has had a negative effect on downtown Vail over the past three decades. He used U.S. Census data to make his case and compared Vail’s upzoning trends (in some areas, heights of more than 70 feet were allowed) to Aspen’s upzoning trends during the recent period known as “infill,” when development regulations were relaxed to encourage building activity.

In a memorandum to other council members, Ireland states that “local ownership for both commercial and residential property has declined under infill.”

The residential development trends have led to many dark spaces downtown and a decrease in the area’s overall vitality, Ireland argued to his council cohorts. He examined property sales during the infill period of the past decade, the result being that the average residential sale price was $1,597 per square foot while comparable data for commercial property was $878 per square foot.

“The residential uses are going to consume the commercial ones,” Ireland said, because of the financial pressure to build free-market units.

During a public hearing, a majority of residents indicated support for height limitations and use restrictions. But not former Mayor Helen Klanderud, who was an advocate for the infill regulations of the past decade.