Vitality through regulation – or deregulation
Houston resident Heather Smith has chosen Breckenridge as her top vacation spot for years. But next year, she said, she might go somewhere else.”It used to be T-shirt shops on every corner,” she said. “Now, it’s one real estate shop after another. It’s all beginning to look the same. I want something new, something different.”Her sentiments echo those of others looking for more interactive and varied things to do on vacation. That lack of vitality – along with the repercussions from Sept. 11 and the sluggish national economy – has led to a decline in retail sales in nearly all of Colorado’s resort towns.Town leaders are struggling with the challenge, and trying to figure out government’s role in private business. Many are fighting, in council chambers and courtrooms, to keep big-box retailers out of town, saying national chains lead to the demise of quaint mountain towns. Others, trying to encourage free-market creativity, are relaxing the very ordinances they put in place to restrict certain kinds of commercial activity. Others, including Vail, have created “vertical zoning,” which requires professional offices to be on upper floors to leave street-level space open for retailers.Vertical zoning debate
Aspen took a long-debated step this year and banned additional office uses on the first floors of downtown buildings. A sudden proliferation of timeshare sales offices initially sparked calls for the prohibition. Proponents of vertical zoning say professional offices create an unnatural break in the streetscape and make it less pedestrian-friendly.Under Aspen’s new rules, new offices are allowed to locate in ground-floor spaces already occupied by offices, unless a space has been empty for a year or more, explained Chris Bendon, the city’s head planner.But some think Aspen is over-regulating. Breckenridge Town Manager Tim Gagen said his Town Council believes in letting the market rule the mix.”I don’t think we should artificially manipulate through zoning who locates where,” he said. “Flexible zoning takes care of that. If you force things to the second floor, the consequences could be vacant storefronts.”And he’s not so sure real estate offices are such a bad thing. Real estate tax revenue – 1 percent on the sales price – supported the economy in the last recession.
“Why shouldn’t that be a component of the commercial core?” Gagen said. “Real estate has been one of the more viable economic drivers.”He thinks the commercial mix will evolve in accordance with the local economy.”What happens when we’re built out?” he asked. “There’s always a market for [home sale] turnover, but real estate won’t be the driver as much. We’ll probably see the natural attenuation of real estate business – same with retail.”As towns approach buildout, the number of tourist-oriented shops could decline, while those serving the locals and second-home owners – furniture, decorating companies and the like – increase.Breckenridge could end up with a streetscape similar to Glenwood Springs, considered by many to be one of the success stories. That town’s diversity was inherited from the days when zoning didn’t play as big a role, Bendon said.
On Glenwood’s Grand Avenue, bookstores coexist with restaurants, 7-Elevens and a bed-and-breakfast. Residential units are often located above retail stores, and it’s not uncommon to find an errant deli across the street from a purely residential neighborhood.It’s tough to regulate that kind of diversity because it evolves over time, Bendon said. And Aspen has learned that regulation can hamper diversity. Aspen’s City Council has decided to relax some of its rules – sign and lighting codes and rules about displays in rights of way – that affect retailers.”Those regulations are intended to preserve a character,” Bendon said. “But sometimes they kind of freeze it in time. A few things are a little overbearing. Relaxing the regulations can make for a more fun environment. A lot of it [vibrancy] isn’t always by regulation, but by peeling away some of the regulation.”It’s a delicate balance.City leaders also want to make sure they don’t begin reacting – and regulating – to every little trend on Main Street.
“The message coming out of Aspen is something we all ought to pay attention to,” said Vail Town Manager Stan Zelmer. “You can’t get carried away and let everything happen. But if you stop being creative, they [merchants] stop trying. Ordinances get so onerous.”The working modelsAll the town leaders are looking to cities that have had success – including lower downtown Denver. Some of LODO’s success is due to getting residents back into areas once filled with warehouses and industrial uses. Yet that, too, comes with drawbacks, notably businesses like barbershops and hardware stores will likely never return.”They’re lost,” Gagen said. “It was the people willing to live down there that made the difference. But even they are not enough of a driver to bring back the original types of business that are part of a classic downtown.”Glenwood Springs officials are trying to develop incentives to encourage residential construction downtown to keep it vibrant.
“The polices are in place, but there’s a disconnect between the policies and the investments that we still have to bridge,” said Andrew McGregor, community development director for Glenwood Springs. “We need to look at planning and zoning; getting people to invest in a confined, urban-style development takes a bit of time and education.”That city, however, doesn’t have as many service businesses edging out small retailers. In recent years, city officials have adopted rules to reward new businesses that come to town. And Glenwood formed a downtown development authority that will ask downtown property owners for a five-mill tax increase to fund the organization and then sell redevelopment bonds.In the end, though, any plan is a gamble.”It’s evolution – a lot of it’s out of your control,” said Breckenridge’s Gagen. “You just offer the best product that fits with the character of your community, work hard at it, and hope that brings success.”Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at email@example.com
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