Roger Marolt: Roger This
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – Who says it’s tough to be a developer in Aspen? Certainly not ASV Aspen Street Owners LLC, the outfit that bought the property at the base of Lift 1A out of bankruptcy after the previous owners’ plans to develop a hotel there were shot down twice by the City Council.
Guess what – the City Council called the new owners back to the negotiating table. It turns out they want a hotel there after all!
I guarantee none of us has ever seen anything like this in Aspen. Remember? We’re environmentally minded height restrictors and promulgators of the ever-expanding incomprehensible building code. City Council is supposed to be the place where blueprints go to turn yellow and hair goes to turn gray. We never met a developer we liked or a NIMBY we were suspicious of. So why is the City Council backtracking on a development plan it has already approved in favor of one it has turned down twice? It’s taking recycling to a new level!
Let me stake out the site plan for you. Earlier this year, Aspen Street Owners submitted plans to build 14 free-market townhouses and 10 affordable townhouses (most call them “units,” but that doesn’t sound very homey) on the land at the base of the west side of Aspen Mountain. As this complied completely with the property’s zoning, the City Council could not very well deny approval.
But call it a nostalgic pang for the good ol’ days or plain black magic – the council decided that the old hotel plan wasn’t so bad after all, and it called Aspen Street Owners back to the table, begging it to consider building a hotel instead of the townhouses.
The people from Aspen Street Owners told the council that they couldn’t possibly do that. It was just too expensive; the proof was in the sticky pudding made from the two previous applications attempting to do it.
If I may paraphrase, the City Council replied, “Whoa, whoa, whoa – wait a minute. There’s no need to rush off. We, we, we … we can figure out something here. Come now. Pleeeease? Can we get you something to drink?”
This got Aspen Street Owners to thinking. There’s absolutely no market for townhouses at the moment. Financing is nearly impossible. Why not play around with these boys and see what might shake out?
One thing that shook out immediately is a section of the usual rules for submitting a plan. The city called the new process a “sketchy-plan” meeting or something like that. It works something like this: The developer can draw up some informal plans without going to great expense, maybe even on the back of a cocktail napkin, and take it to the City Council to discuss without obligation. And to provide one more opportunity for the City Council to sweeten the pot for the developers.
It’s no secret that the mayor prefers having a hotel on the site rather than the proposed and approved townhomes. What he said at the sketchy-plan meeting was, “We have enough dead space in town; I’m not interested in creating more.” What the developers heard was, “Cha-ching!”
When they talked about height, it went something like this:
The city: “Let’s see, we recently restricted the height of buildings downtown to 42 feet. For the new Aspen Art Museum, we allowed 47 feet. Hmmm … you know, this isn’t really in downtown. I think we can go up to 60 feet high, not an inch taller … unless that doesn’t work for you.”
Aspen Street Owners: (sounds of lips smacking).
The parking discussion went something like this:
Aspen Street Owners: “Building below grade is hellishly expensive. We can’t do much in the way of parking except for owners and guests.”
The city: “OK.”
Then they discussed employee housing, and it went along these lines:
Aspen Street Owners: “Hows about we cut back the requirement for subsidized housing from 16 units to, say, I dunno, eight? I know it sounds like a drastic cut, but we weren’t going to make them very big anyway.”
The city: “Uhm, we’d actually prefer more units than that.”
Aspen Street Owners: “Well, then … “
The city: “OK. We’re good with eight units. Would you object to our looking into setting up a special public-improvement district to try to raise some money for you so that maybe, possibly, if things work out just right you could consider building more units … maybe … if they didn’t cost you anything … possibly?”
Aspen Street Owners: “Well … “
The city: “OK, we’re not looking for an answer now. Don’t worry. Just throwing ideas out, something to consider, that’s all. Not a deal-breaker, no, no, no, not by any means. We don’t want any deal-breakers.”
Somebody please wake me when we land.
Roger Marolt is too stunned to form an opinion on this odd turn of events in City Council chambers. Help him out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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