Third floors disappoint some Aspen council members
ASPEN – Aspen City Council members appear to differ on certain aspects of downtown development, though the general feeling among the five elected leaders is that the new rule restricting building heights is in need of flexibility.
At a work session Monday, 2 1/2 hours were devoted to how to prevent the apparent erosion of the downtown core’s small-town character.
The meeting came after the council voted 3-1 on April 2 to limit downtown building heights to 28 feet. The council’s vote was in reaction to its consensus that the so-called infill regulations, crafted a decade ago, have not achieved their desired effect to spur vitality and growth in the city.
In advance of the work session, city planners instructed council members to scrutinize downtown buildings and offer their views on which structures mesh with Aspen’s character.
Councilman Steve Skadron, who said the buildings should exemplify a “Rocky Mountain West” feel, floated the idea of third-floor-use criteria for builders seeking an exemption from the 28-foot rule.
“Allowing every building to rise to three stories ultimately destroys Aspen’s character,” Skadron contended. “I suggest the city set up a criteria for third floors.”
The councilman said such an approach would make the decision less arbitrary for the council when a developer approaches it with a third-floor proposal.
Likewise, Councilman Torre said the typical third-floor business model – when a developer pitches retail or restaurants on the first two floors and a penthouse or free-market unit on the third – hasn’t worked in Aspen.
“The penthouses we’ve seen have not added the vitality we thought they would,” Torre said.
Councilman Derek Johnson, however, cautioned that rigid guidelines for developers, at least when it comes to a third floor, could “create a lot of uncertainty for developers.”
“I don’t want this to break us,” he said.
Aspen residents, or at least the 83 respondents to a city-issued survey about whether they would be willing to have three-story buildings in town, offered varying views.
Thirty-six percent said they favor three-level buildings in the downtown core “regardless of the uses in the building,” while 32.5 percent said structures should be limited to two stories. Other respondents were more flexible, with 7.2 percent saying they supported three-story buildings if they came with affordable housing, 7.2 percent saying it worked for them if there was a lodge on the property, 3.6 percent approving of three levels if a restaurant is in the building and 10.8 percent backing the buildings if businesses there provide day-to-day goods and services.
Mayor Mick Ireland, meanwhile, emphasized that the 28-foot limit puts the City Council in charge when it comes to developer applications, as they can no longer use the threat of litigation as leverage when negotiating with the council over variances, exceptions and such.
The meeting was sparsely attended, but the three Aspen residents who made public statements about the third-floor debate implored the council to stick to its 28-foot limit. Resident Bill Wiener even suggested that if the council abandons the limit, Aspenites would draft their own petition to curtail development.
At the end of the meeting, Chris Bendon, the city’s director of community development, said the next step is to hold a public hearing so residents can provide feedback on the city’s policy direction.
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