Guest column: Rooting for the moratorium’s success
Agreeing to disagree is so ingrained in Aspen’s DNA that the phrase may as well be our town slogan. It’s a truism we’ve all come to accept — and for the most part to live up to — so it makes the consensus that’s emerged around the moratorium the Aspen City Council announced in March all the more remarkable and refreshing. Let us add another voice to that harmony: Aspen Skiing Co. is glad we pressed the “pause” button on development.
Why? Easy — the moratorium on commercial building in the core was enacted to give the City Council and staff a chance to solve a problem that everyone seems to agree is, in fact, a problem: the creeping loss of vitality in downtown Aspen. (And please note that “vitality” and “busyness” are two very different concepts, though that’s a conversation for another day.) We at Skico share that concern. Moreover, we’ve seen the public’s disillusionment with changes in the core morph into a sweeping — and, frankly, understandable — prejudice against almost any new buildings, whether they have the potential to usher in vitality or not.
We believe some shared community interest is being obscured by those broad-stroke anxieties. A big-picture aspiration of the moratorium is to align the land-use code with the values outlined in the 2012 Aspen Area Community Plan. In that plan — and in similar documents dating back decades — a plainly stated goal is to maintain Aspen’s visitor-based economy and the lodging inventory necessary to support it. No surprise, we applaud that, as well. And while the council has chosen not to focus on bed base with this moratorium, we would ask that the community not lose sight of lodges’ ability to bring vitality to the core. For proof, look no farther than the Jerome, the Sky and the Limelight.
Yet over recent years, we’ve looked on with increasing concern as the prospect of replenishing Aspen’s diminishing bed base has been met with angst and pushback. Where does that disconnect come from? Probably from the fact that much of the development in the past decade has not been about supporting the visitor economy. It’s been about maximizing the land value of specific, individual properties. To longtime visitors and locals, that has translated into the loss of one beloved restaurant or retail store after another.
With a few notable exceptions — Meat & Cheese and Hops Culture come to mind — the swaps of one establishment for another tend to be predictable, bringing ever-pricier retail that increasingly fewer shoppers can afford. Or the switches bring redundancy, like a multitude of banks. Or, perhaps worst of all, a vacant space that can sit unrented for months, even years, since there is marginal development value in street-level commercial space and few retailers who can afford market rents. This is the “sterilization” effect the council is trying to eliminate. And when those changes to the built environment come with increased height and mass, it just feels like salt in the wound.
We wholeheartedly applaud the council and staff’s effort and the goal of maintaining vitality in the downtown core and surrounding areas. All visitors to Aspen, including the patrons of high-end boutiques, want authentic, lively and engaging experiences. The hushed, stiff formality of yet another international designer boutique does very little for those visitors or for our brand.
All of that said, we support the moratorium for more than hoping it will bring clarity to how our community can comfortably embrace the resort economy. Running through the list of values the community plan outlines, we can’t find a single one we don’t agree with. Employee housing? Yes, please — and quickly. Protecting the environment and avoiding sprawl? We’re in. Alternative transportation solutions? Sign us up. Maintaining small-town character and quality of life? Of course.
Simply put, downtown Aspen is a hugely important part of our product and brand. Everyone, including our most ardent critics, knows that the ski experience we offer holds up to anyone’s. But there’s other quality skiing in the Rockies and beyond. The extraordinary, vibrant town spilling out from the base of Ajax is truly unique. It’s one of our greatest competitive advantages, so we have as much interest as anyone in seeing it remain that way.
With the moratorium’s public-outreach component beginning in earnest next week — the first in a series of pop-up workshops on the pedestrian malls will take place June 15 and 16 — we hope the community weighs in with forward-thinking enthusiasm on how to maintain and renew Aspen’s vibrancy. This is a process we all need to get behind.
Mike Kaplan is president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Co. Michael Miracle is director of community engagement for Skico.
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