Retailers want prompt action to rezone core | AspenTimes.com

Retailers want prompt action to rezone core

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A standing-room-only crowd of Aspen merchants rallied Wednesday behind one local retailer’s call for emergency action to halt the conversion of downtown shop space to real estate sales offices.

Barry Gordon, an Aspen retailer and member of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors, urged the group to reconvene in the City Council chambers on Monday night and demand an emergency ordinance to rezone the downtown core.

“If you believe we can move forward, if you believe we can effect change, now is the time to do it,” Gordon said.

Yesterday’s meeting at the Aspen Square Hotel was the first gathering of a proposed new Aspen Retail Merchants Association. Gordon is spearheading an effort to bring Aspen retailers together to fight what he sees as the deterioration of the commercial core – most notably through the influx of real estate and time-share sales offices that are taking over prime retail spaces.

The effect, he said, is a degradation of the shopping experience that hurts tourism and, consequently, the ability of remaining retailers, restaurants and lodges to survive.

“Before we can heal the wound, we must stop the bleeding here in town,” said Gordon, who envisions the retailers’ group as one that seeks “action and results.”

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“I agree there has to be a starting point and I think it has to be Monday night,” said Pam Francis, owner of Chepita, a Cooper Avenue jewelry store.

The city is already researching the potential for new zoning regulations in the downtown core as part of infill legislation that is now being written, Mayor Helen Klanderud told the group. The code changes are expected to facilitate redevelopment within town, hence the term “infill.”

“I think you have support on City Council to consider this kind of rezoning, but I don’t know if you have the support to do it on an emergency basis,” Klanderud said. “It is conceivable that we could do this before the end of the year.”

But fear that the vacant Aspen Drug space on the Hyman Avenue Mall could become the next real estate sales office is fueling Gordon’s push to do something now. “In my mind, this is an emergency,” he said.

Sandy Munro, owner of the Great Divide Music Store, suggested the city enact a moratorium to prevent offices in retail spots rather than an emergency rezoning, giving the city adequate time to work on the legislation.

“You’re treading on delicate ground here,” Klanderud said. “We always have a slight barrier here and it’s the U.S. Constitution.

“Rezonings are not minor things. They have tremendous impacts and they have ripple-effect implications,” she said, cautioning the group against pressing for a knee-jerk rezoning of the nine square blocks that make up the commercial core.

Several real estate brokers in attendance voiced support for Gordon’s goals, but suggested everyone work together instead of pointing fingers at the real estate community.

“I want to see the city revitalized. I think there is a problem,” said Jeannie Marcus, a real estate broker. “I would like to see an inclusive solution.”

An emergency ordinance would polarize the community, warned broker Ruth Kruger.

The time-share units at The Ritz-Carlton Club at Aspen Highlands are booked for the rest of the summer, bringing people to Aspen, she added.

Gordon assured the group his purpose is not to bash the real estate industry. They have simply become the focus because they are the predominant nonretail use that has proliferated in storefronts that were once occupied by retail shops, he said.

“We need them, I want them, but should they be in the retail core?” he said. “If I come to Aspen and I’m looking for real estate, I’m going to find you.”

Gordon suggested the sale of time shares, for example, could occur in second-floor offices.

But Frank Schiavone, owner of the Pretzelmaker, wondered if keeping the space open for retail use would bring in retailers.

“Are the landlords willing to cooperate and make it viable for retailers? Otherwise we’re stonewalled again,” he said.

Before the group dispersed, merchants tossed out other suggestions for immediate action, from cleaning up litter outside their storefronts to projecting a positive attitude about Aspen in their conversations with others, and getting out in the evening themselves to add to the town’s vitality.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com.]