Vagneur: The Aspen future we feared is now
December 17, 2016
It comes around from time to time, an attempt to change the color of the downtown core, usually with dismal results. In recent memory, there was infill (taller, cluttered and more dense is good); there was an attempt to keep office space out of ground-floor spaces; the ill-fated, proposed ordinance of a couple of years ago that gave away the farm to developers and lasted all of a week or so before outraged citizens attacked City Hall with vituperative displeasure; and most recently, a citizen revolt concerning city-granted variances to developers, making a mockery of our zoning laws. It's reasonably clear that we'll be living with the unwanted results of infill for generations — results of the other ideas less obvious.
And now we're hearing about a desire to limit or forbid chain stores in and around the downtown core, an idea which is still in its infancy stage. Sounds reasonable enough at first blush, but as with everything else with government, our defenses are immediately alerted to the specter of "unintended consequences."
If I remember correctly, the 2001-2002 flap about using ground-floor prime retail spaces for (primarily real estate) offices began during a celebrated surge in real estate sales. Perhaps it was the Great Recession that eventually took care of said problem, without need for the omnipresent hand of government to continue regulating such issues. At the same time, "infill" was being lauded as the best, and perhaps only, way to reintroduce vitality back into Aspen's downtown. We paid outside consultants for this paradigm-changing idea of growth. In all fairness, infill also was supposed to curb sprawl, like we have so much room to sprawl out into.
We shouldn't be surprised that chain stores take up their share of downtown retail space — we've been inviting this invasion for a long time, for maybe 30 years or more. We changed the zoning in the West End, allowing newcomers to build almost lot line to lot line. Huge monoliths started going up, taking over garden and open space, standing tall in their opulence, dark inside for most of the year.
About the same time, we allowed the Historical Preservation Commission to bless the same type of construction, requiring the developer to keep the small Victorian structure around which the monolith was built, to remain intact. These rules must have been written by architects, not those with an interest in historical integrity.
Pitkin County jumped into the fray, allowing houses as big as 15,000 square feet in size, and when they tried to curb that frenzy, they cut maximum house size to 5,750, but allowed house size to still reach 15,000 square feet through the use of transferable development rights.
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Without going on and on, let me just say that the above decisions (and others) worked to open the floodgates, allowing the folks with the most amount of play money to make a mockery of our small town. Their friends followed them here like birds on the wing.
Large companies with CEOs and other high-ranking officers who liked to ski, ride bikes and schmooze over cocktails found an environment totally to their liking. A town full of wealthy people at predictable times of the year, an airport that could accommodate private jets and McMansions suitable to the importance of corporate culture is all it took.
It became a symbiotic relationship between the chain stores and their customers. Older people who used to come for a month or two in the winter to ski, the ones with the big bucks, some of whom I know quite well, quit skiing but they still come a month or two every winter and summer. They own big houses, or rent them, and the women love to shop and go to private parties while the men love the cuisine and ogle the young women. Those types of people, who more and more make up the majority of our tourist base, may quit coming here if the chain stores are banished. And half of our downtown employees will be left without good jobs.
The chain stores aren't going to leave because the above-mentioned people also shop at their stores back home in the city and because other advantages to the chains are enormous. Business expenses get written off with blinding speed — company aircraft, in the form of private jets, large houses on Red Mountain or penthouses downtown, trips to Aspen to check on business and a cadre of other write-offs make doing business (and playing) in Aspen a very enticing proposition.
It may be that we've passed the tipping point. There's no doubt that many longtime locals would like to see fewer chain stores, less opulence and a return to a more friendly town, but perhaps it's time to realize that much of what we've feared is right here, having arrived while we kidded ourselves that it couldn't really happen.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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