Elizabeth Milias: They’re not all Grinches at City Hall

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

Who do you call if you want to build a 13-by-40-foot enclosed dining room, on a busy downtown Aspen street that is also on the bus route and very much in the fire department’s right-of-way, in what has for years been a designated handicapped parking space, then run electricity to it, and relocate a public trash can so that you can offer indoor dining for 13 throughout the winter?

When Raphael and Karin Derly, proprietors of the French Alpine Bistro, affectionately known as “The Creperie,” sought to revamp their summer “street activation” into what they envisioned as a small chalet on Mill Street, they approached the city with a concept. Their popular downstairs restaurant at the corner of Mill and Hopkins can accommodate 49 diners, but the current COVID restrictions only allow 25% occupancy, which is 12, hardly enough to keep the enterprise in business. Their request of the city was ambitious but straightforward, if not unprecedented: a heated indoor dining structure on the street in front of their restaurant.

Given what we all know about the city and its often draconian and anti-business, regulatory culture, surely this wild idea was laughed away, right? Wrong. Just as when the Whos down in Whoville, without gifts, sang joyously on Christmas morning, causing the Grinch’s too-small heart to grow three sizes that day, key decision-makers at the city remarkably embraced this novel proposal and worked with the restaurant to keep it legal and bring the vision to life.

Mitch Osur, director of parking and downtown services, and city clerk Nicole Henning, together with the engineering department, worked throughout the fall with the restaurant’s managers to address the myriad challenges of accommodating this unique project. The handicapped parking space and trash can were relocated to the Hopkins side of the corner, protective cement “Jersey barriers” were installed as part of a required “traffic control plan,” and, given that the electrical capacity of the restaurant could not accommodate the additional load from the chalet, the building’s landlord granted access to an unoccupied unit’s electricity, which was strung in three conduits, 14 feet above ground, over the sidewalk to the new structure.

This kind of collaboration on behalf of the city is rare but encouraging. It demonstrates a spirit of cooperation and open-mindedness by several individuals in city hall that was first demonstrated last summer when, in response to COVID restrictions, six restaurants were granted permission to operate on the sidewalk, along with 10 others and nine retailers on local streets. That this complex winter request was not dismissed out of hand and was instead welcomed is a testament to an encouraging “can do” attitude exemplified by Osur and Henning.

Osur, a former retailer and entrepreneur himself, is the city’s conduit to downtown businesses and prides himself on always exploring what is possible as opposed to finding a reason to say no. It’s just his personality. Henning, custodian of the municipal code, admits she simply “made it her mission” this year to help local businesses with what they wanted to do. “I just couldn’t imagine these restaurants which we all know and love shutting their doors.” Not quite the attitudes we’ve long expected and accepted from city hall.

Years ago, when I was a student in business school, I took a memorable course on the art of negotiation, which featured the best-selling book, “Getting to Yes.” It would seem that the touted method of “principled negotiation,” where acceptable solutions are determined based on which needs are fixed and which are flexible, was unwittingly adhered to in Aspen’s unique case of getting a cozy dining room built in a very public right-of-way. Osur and Henning uniquely demonstrated a refreshing willingness to “get to yes” within the bureaucratic framework of the city’s established guidelines.

Could this possibly signal an unexpected but welcome cultural shift at city hall? Optimistically, yes. It’s a very real demonstration of what is indeed possible, and, within the letter of the law and building codes and zoning regulations and safety requirements, there are still many “yeses” that can be gotten to, if open minds contemplate requests and challenges through a prism of cooperation and positivity. Osur and Henning should serve as examples for their colleagues.

Nobody bent or broke the rules, nor granted special favors. Instead, in choosing to work within the given parameters with a “let’s do this” attitude, these city employees have enabled the community and local businesses to benefit from some very impactful “yeses.” Like the chalet. Kudos to Osur and Henning. With their collaborative spirit and desire to “get to yes,” they have served as examples to other city departments where rigid rules interpretation and strict enforcement is still pervasive, more often than not for what appears to be power for power’s sake. Sadly, as demonstrated by the zoning department’s recent shameful demand that a wall-mounted interior television at a local ski shop be removed because it hung within 15 feet of the front of the building and could therefore be designated an illegal sign, objectivity and a “can do” attitude cannot yet be considered infectious. But, as Osur contends, “We’ll get there.”

COVID has forced everyone, including those at the city, to think differently. Most impactful has been a demonstrated attitude of collaboration with the business community. Unlike the virus, let’s hope it spreads! Contact