Sorting out the land-use code
In April 2006, the City Council enacted a moratorium to address the shortcomings of “infill.” The review of the land-use code was extensive and thorough; we were greatly assisted by staff. The concept of “infill” (allowing more building within the town center instead of on the periphery of town, i.e. sprawl) was endorsed by all of council, though it needed significant revision.The purported promise of infill was a public/private partnership. The city of Aspen (the public partner) would agree to lower the mitigation from what they had been, allow more free-market residential units in town than had been allowed and accept height and greater density in town than previously allowed; affordable housing and (more affordable) commercial/office space would be built by the private sector in exchange. This is not what infill as actually enacted got us.The revisions we undertook to address the shortcomings of infill get us far closer to our goals than the previous incarnation of infill ever could have. Some significant revisions are as follows:1) The growth management quota system (GMQS), our growth-pacing mechanism, regulates the number of allotments available in a year. It was amended to include a scored, objective competition for allotments, whereas under prior infill codes it was a first-come, first-served system. The competition now encourages applications to go beyond the bare minimums on affordable housing, energy efficiency and smaller lodge units.2) The GMQS now includes a yearly quota for lodging projects.3) A new provision in the GMQS provides for community commercial. Due to its novelty, this provision is not completely fleshed out as yet. It will be taken up by the new council this summer, fully defined and thoroughly discussed with much public input. This concept has been discussed in the Aspen Area Community Plan since 1993, and this council thought it was time to include it in the land-use code. It will provide us with a means to preserve existing locally serving uses and encourage the creation of new such uses.4) We created Commercial Design Review Standards that along with our existing historic preservation guidelines will protect Aspen’s design character. Among other things, these standards will require new development to pay respect to neighboring historic structures in their design.5) Projects will for the first time be required to complete a Conceptual Commercial Design Review process before they proceed to the GMQS allotment competition. This will ensure we get acceptable buildings before they proceed to final review. Our hands will no longer be tied. This should lead to buildings acceptable to the community, and to far less wrangling at the council table.6) The previous infill legislation encouraged the conversion of relatively inexpensive free-market units housing locals to free-market units too expensive for the average local to afford. This was done under the guise of what I refer to as “the tired building syndrome.” The revisions to the land-use code will stop encouraging this practice.7) With respect to the redevelopment of our smaller lodges, the amount of free market residential units/condos allowed in such projects has been lowered to a level more acceptable to this council.8) The heights and floor area ratios in the commercial and lodging zones have been reduced. The intention was not to have lower buildings for the sake of lower buildings but to encourage more variation in building heights between adjacent properties. On larger properties, these reductions will encourage variations in building height within the structure. This was done to encourage the pattern of construction we inherited from the mining era.Because of the changes to interior and exterior heights it is impossible to have a four-story building by right under the code.These reductions are not radical, but they are significant and for good reason – to allow us, through the Commercial Design Review process, to have more influence over design and lead us away from boxy buildings. We have NOT frozen the possibility of change or redevelopment in any of the zones.9) The most significant change under the moratorium may be the increased likelihood of complete parity between the amount of free market residential square footage and the amount of affordable housing square footage. The code now encourages the same amount of square footage for affordable housing and free-market residential in each development.10) Though not technically part of the moratorium, we have significantly improved our construction management program to alleviate to a great degree the negative effects of so much construction occurring at once. All projects over 1,000 square feet, whether residential or commercial, must mitigate for the impacts of their construction in significant ways.Other than the competition for allotments, we were unable to agree on a method to completely control the pace of development (how much actual construction can occur in a year), that pesky constitution of ours and “the law” kept getting in our way. However, we may still, under the new council, be able to tie the number of each year’s new allotments to the number of existing, approved but as yet unbuilt allotments. Not a “use it or lose it” system, rather, a “use it or no one else can build anything” system. We can let the developers pressure each other to get their projects completed in a timely, acceptable fashion rather than overwhelming the community with too many projects being built at one time.There must be a way to tie the growth rate we deem acceptable to a build rate we can agree to. I think it is possible, and the new council needs to be as aggressive in finding this method as the present one. We took as many steps as were practical and legal, fair and acceptable – we simply ran out of time.Councils over the years have approved many projects that remain to be built. We’ve dug ourselves a hole, both literally and figuratively. While the situation is clearly intolerable, it is my hope, and I believe this council’s hope, that through these code revisions things will improve and we can once again have both peace and quiet.Jack Johnson is an Aspen city councilman.
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