Outdoor dining in Aspen will come at a cost this winter

Aspen City Council agrees to allow activation in public right of way but the fees are no longer waived

A waitress carries a plate from the French Alpine Bistro to their outdoor dining structure in Aspen on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Structures like the French Alpine Bistro, which is at the corner of Mill Street and Hopkins Avenue, will be allowed to stay through the winter, per Aspen City Council on Tuesday. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

With uncertainties around COVID-19 this winter, Aspen’s elected officials are supportive of keeping outdoor dining in the public right of way, but in order to keep a level playing field, it’s time for businesses that utilize those spaces to start paying for them.

That was the direction Aspen City Council gave staff during a work session Tuesday regarding vitality in town for the winter.

For the past 18 months, businesses that have chosen to activate either in parking spaces, pedestrian malls or sidewalks have not had to pay the city a fee to use public right of way.

For the malls or sidewalks that fee is $4.02 per square foot, which averages between $7,000 and $10,000 for a business in the summer, said Mitch Osur, the city’s director downtown services and parking.

An amount hasn’t been calculated for what a parking space should go for, and Osur and his team are working on that figure before coming back to council later this month.

This past winter 47 spaces in the downtown core were utilized mostly by restaurants having outdoor structures, as well as dedicated take-out spots.

Currently, there are 22 spaces being used for either retail or restaurants, Osur said.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he supports keeping the status quo on allowing outdoor dining because the pandemic is not showing signs of easing up.

“If we had a dynamic situation that would be easier, but now it’s turning more towards what it was in the winter as far as the delta variant is concerned and the possibility of having more shutdowns,” he said. “Because of that I want to remain a bit flexible.”

The majority of council agreed with Osur and the team working on the outdoor winter plan that nobody should get anything for free after Oct. 31, which is when the current activation policy ends.

While council agreed to allow the semi-permanent structures, like at the corner of Mill Street and Hopkins Avenue where the French Alpine Bistro Creperie du Village restaurant is, Mayor Torre said he has fielded safety concerns from residents about crossing the street there.

“I wasn’t looking forward to those going forward past Oct. 31,” he said. “I’ve had some business input from those that are activating in the street, those that can’t activate in the street, those who don’t want to activate in the street and those that can’t afford to activate in the street about an unlevel playing field.”

Torre commended city staff for their work since the pandemic began in March 2020 in keeping Aspen’s vitality, but perhaps it’s too vibrant.

“I really appreciate the coordination. I thought it was appropriate for this year, but outdoor amplified music and excessive lighting are two things that fly in the face of long-held Aspen values,” he said.

Hauenstein asked staff to beautify the Jersey barriers protecting the outdoor spaces.

“They are huge and they are ugly,” he said. “If there’s a way to put lipstick on that pig, or gussy them up that would help.”

Whether retail should be allowed in the public right of way is an issue that council will take up again at its Sept. 27 meeting.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said there is an unfairness to allowing a bike shop to use parking spaces at no cost even though its rented space is too small to accommodate that kind of business activity.

She also said landlords should be cutting breaks to their tenants if they have to pay for additional capacity to operate.

“It seems to me that if there’s any continued activation of parking spaces there should be a reduction in rent to tenants,” she said. “I think we all know that the businesses struggling with very high rates and an inability to pay employees enough to live in the valley, so I don’t want to give away an asset of the city without giving something back in return from the businesses that are having expanded space … without the landlord reducing their monthly rent.”

Council also agreed that restaurants that have expanded on private property should be paying mitigation fees that are associated with increased square footage.

How that will get calculated in the future is up to the community development department to sort out and bring back to council, according to Ben Anderson, principal long range planner.

“In community development staff’s perspective, I think these spaces were successful in that they provided space that businesses needed, particularly when there were limits on capacity, but they did require us to push aside things that pre-COVID the community was very concerned about,” he said. “Some of these structures are getting to be pretty close to what we would evaluate net leaseable space.”