Stone: A day for sunshine and rainbows (hold the unicorns)
A Stone’s Throw
I woke up Tuesday morning and everything had changed. It felt like a brand-new world.
It had snowed, of course, a welcome change from the near drought of the past month. But that’s just (just?) the weather — and sudden changes in the weather are the expected unexpected. Or is it the unexpected expected? Whatever. Ask Donald Rumsfeld.
The two really remarkable changes were spelled out in the pages of the newspaper: The City Council is passing an emergency moratorium on commercial development downtown in preparation for what could be a significant downzoning of the core of the city. And Mark Hunt’s Base Lodge (formerly Base1 before its sibling was tossed out) is being revised with a new plan that meets all the zoning regulations, no exemptions needed.
Those stories both fall squarely into the “unexpected unexpected” category — as unexpected as a blizzard in August and as delightfully welcome as a blizzard on Thanksgiving.
I admit that every time I get enthusiastic about news like this, I wind up bitterly disappointed in the end. But for now, I’m eager to celebrate. Sunshine and rainbows, y’all. (But forget the unicorns — just a rhinoceros with a good press agent.)
In the past, I have been harshly critical of the City Council for its seeming inability to get a grip on controlling growth.
Even after the people of Aspen slapped the council hard by taking away its power to grant variances from zoning regulations, council members seemed stubbornly determined to keep heading in the same (wrong) direction, finding new ways to make the same old mistakes.
But, coupled with the hiring of a new planning director, the move toward a moratorium — an emergency moratorium, which is important — feels like a ray of sunshine.
It’s an admission that things have been out of line, over the line and heading for a cliff.
I said that the “emergency” part of it is important, and it is.
A few years ago, when the city was getting ready to reduce the maximum height of downtown buildings (correcting an egregious error by a previous council), the council took the cowardly way out and refused to impose the new height limits as an “emergency” measure.
Invoking the emergency rules means that the new codes take effect immediately. Under standard procedures, the path to approval is long and slow.
The result of the council’s cop-out on the height limits was a rush of new applications taking advantage of the old rules before they changed.
Aspen will be living with the results of that mistake for decades.
But if the council does follow through this time and give the emergency measure final approval Tuesday night (which you should be able to read about in this edition of the newspaper), Aspen will get some much-needed breathing room to deal with serious questions of what this town will become in the future.
I don’t have time or room to dig too deeply into those questions today, but this could be — and should be — an opportunity to really grapple with controlling growth before it’s too late.
We have fumbled many such opportunities in the past, and with every passing year the mistakes continue to pile up.
Aspen is choking on its own success. Big ideas and bold actions are needed. I admit my faith in the city’s ability to pull it off is shaky, but this moratorium is certainly a big step in the right direction.
And that heaping helping of good news was enhanced by the revised plans for Hunt’s Base Lodge.
I have to note that those revisions did not emerge from a spontaneous moment of civic spirit on the part of the developer.
In fact, a serious mistake by Hunt’s development team resulted in the project missing a filing deadline and technically losing its approval.
But I had expected Hunt to push to have the approvals reinstated without any changes, arguing that the missed deadline should not affect the acceptability of the project, as approved.
Instead, the new proposal gives up all the zoning exemptions the project won in some fierce battles during the original consideration of the hotel.
The revised plan meets the height limits, includes the required on-site parking and would provide the mandated employee housing — all of which had been waived by the council when it approved the hotel a year ago.
I will not pretend to have any insight as to why Hunt made these changes. Perhaps he thought he had to if he wanted his approval reinstated. Perhaps he really was motivated by concern for the community.
Whatever the reason, the changes are welcome.
They are welcome because they help reduce the hotel’s negative impacts. And they are even more welcome because they, yet again, reveal that when developers wail that they cannot possibly make a project work without a lengthy list of concessions, they are never telling the truth (or, at least, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth).
Yes, I know that last sentence is a little bit snarky, and I have been trying to keep this column filled with nothing but sunshine and rainbows. But the acknowledgment that developers always wildly exaggerate their absolute need for exemptions from the “onerous zoning regulations” is actually part of my smiley-faced rainbow for the day.
That’s because as the city begins its consideration of the changes that are needed to keep Aspen livable — for residents and visitors alike — it is helpful to have a reminder that developers are always claiming they can’t possibly survive under the rules. They always need an exemption. Always.
The city needs to keep that in mind as it writes the new rules — and then, even more so, as it enforces them.
And right now, as I finish writing this column and look out the window, the sun is shining on freshly fallen snow. No rainbows, but that’s OK. It’s a great day. Let’s enjoy it.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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