Office ban is (hopefully) a smart move

Aspen Times Staff

For every significant land-use action undertaken over the years by government in the upper valley, there have almost always been at least a few unexpected consequences.

The decision in the mid-1970s, for instance, to sharply limit new residential and commercial development throughout Aspen and Pitkin County arguably drove up real estate prices, created a market for second homes and the need for an affordable housing program.

Government and business leaders shouldn’t expect things to be different with the city of Aspen’s recent decision to bar landlords from renting additional ground-floor property in the commercial core as office space.

The idea behind the ban is to promote a more vibrant retail district by checking the troubling trend of converting prime ground-floor spaces from retail shops to offices.

Two of the most noticeable and significant conversions are at the corner of the Hyman Avenue mall and Galena Street, where Aspen Drug sat for as long as anyone can remember and the former site of Eddie Bauer at the corner of Mill and Hopkins. Both spaces became showcase centers for the sale of fractional-ownership units in Aspen and Snowmass.

It’s hard for anyone who has been in town for more than five years not to notice the effect of these changes. Both corners are noticeably less vibrant. There’s nothing at either place for the average local, or even the average shopper, to do except keep on walking.

So the City Council’s decision Monday to ban additional ground-floor offices in the core appears to make sense ” especially in light of the other amendments it made, which allow more density and height in the core, primarily to permit more affordable housing there.

The city needs to keep a close eye on how these changes affect the core. If it becomes clear after a time that the so-called office ban is creating more vacancies or otherwise stifling commercial life, then it should be revisited. Given the split vote and the tenor of Monday’s City Council discussion, council members are approaching this rule with some well-advised caution.

Existing offices will be “grandfathered in” and won’t be required to convert to retail until after a year of vacancy. This gives landowners some flexibility, but also prevents them from sitting on vacant property for too long and waiting for a deep-pocketed office tenant to come along.

Hopefully, in their zeal to foster new life downtown, council members haven’t inadvertently obstructed it.