With no major development proposals in front of Aspen City Council these days, one might think things are quiet on the land-use front in Aspen. It’s not. There’s a lot going on under the surface, with advisory boards and staff, and with major land-use planning efforts not tied to one particular property. In this post, we’re attempting to provide a big-picture yet nutshell summary of the major developments — and the latest developments thereof — in Aspen. It doesn’t and can’t include all of them. Read on …
MORATORIUM & CODE CHANGES
Halfway through a one-year moratorium on new development in Aspen’s main commercial zones, the City is in the thick of a planning and community-input process meant to result in a number of land-use code revisions that are more aligned with the Aspen Area Community Plan.
The process, which began in mid-March when the moratorium was passed unanimously by City Council, tackles issues related to Aspen’s commercial use mix, off-street parking, view planes, commercial design standards and public amenities, and free-market residential.
In an effort to maximize community input, it has involved numerous public meetings and open houses, an information booth at the Aspen Saturday Market, and “pop-up” workshops on the downtown malls and other public areas to entice spontaneous, convenient passerby feedback. The City also launched a dedicated website for the project, aspencommunityvoice.com, which includes information on the five target areas, progress updates, a document library, and multiple additional ways to provide feedback.
If it all sounds overwhelming and somewhat boring, it probably is. But in the midst of all the industry terminology and planner speak are some key issues that the community has been debating for years, for which resolution is being sought. One of those issues, for example, is the size and scope of free-market residential use in downtown Aspen. City Council banned penthouses in the commercial core in 2012; now elected officials are leaning toward more restrictions on free-market residential units in and around other downtown zones.
Off-street parking is another piece of the land-use puzzle. The City wants to update off-street parking requirements for new development with an eye toward reducing congestion and keeping in mind mobility alternatives, such as biking, walking, and public transportation.
During a five-hour work session to gauge initial policy direction in late August, City Council spent a good chunk of time on the commercial use mix and design guidelines — specifically to see if there’s a way for local policy to address the phenomenon of local-serving, mom-and-pop business being priced out of downtown by high-end chains. Council members seemed to like a consultant’s suggestion of having new development provide some non-prime commercial space — in the basement, off an alley, or on the second floor, for example — which wouldn’t be as well suited to high-end retail and could thus command more affordable rents. (Read this Aspen Daily News article for more detail on what was discussed at the August 29 work session.)
Moving forward, three more work sessions are scheduled before the end of September for City Council to give input on potential land-use code changes in these five areas. Then, on October 10, they’ll hold a public hearing that’ll serve as the kick-off for the more formal policy discussion, with a vote on a “policy resolution” to move forward or not.
“This is the second inning of a very long game,” says City of Aspen Community Relations Director Mitzi Rapkin, who nevertheless encourages constituents to weigh in as early in the process as possible. (While the informal community-input event series is complete, the City will take feedback throughout the process at Aspen Community Voice, during the public hearings, and of course through communication with elected officials.)
The City’s goal is to have any land-use changes that emerge from this process approved by the end of January, well before the moratorium’s expiration of February 28, 2017.
LIFT 1A DEVELOPMENT
Gorsuch Haus, a proposed 60-room hotel project at the base of Lift 1A, is now in the thick of the land-use process. Aspen’s Planning and Zoning Commission is reviewing the application by longtime local retailer Jeff Gorsuch and his business partners (real estate agent Bryan Peterson and Jim deFrancia of Lowe Enterprises), which would also bring some wholly owned residential units, a ski-in, ski-out restaurant, and some retail to Aspen Mountain’s original historic base area.
So far, public officials have largely praised the project’s design, uses, and preservation of historic view planes. But they’re currently hung up on public access to the slopes. A new high-speed lift is being planned that will load about 66 feet further upslope than the existing Lift 1A (though it won’t be an uphill walk due to regrading of the site). This leaves many questioning how people coming from downtown Aspen will easily access the new lift. A frequent shuttle from Gondola Plaza is not sufficient, say those who are encouraging a platter pull from lower on South Aspen Street. But the Aspen Skiing Co. is rejecting the surface-lift solution, saying there’s not enough room in the narrow corridor to accommodate uphill and downhill skier traffic as well as snowmaking and grooming operations.
Any lift-access solution also needs buy-in from Gorsuch Haus and the owners of the neighboring future Lift One Lodge, which is required to contribute financially to it per its land-use approvals.
Approved in 2011 with minor plan tweaks made earlier this year, Lift One Lodge is a fractional private residence club that will consist of 22 units and five fully-owned condos, totaling 84 potential short-term rental rooms. The project also includes a ski museum in the old Skier’s Chalet lodge building, affordable housing in the Skier’s Chalet Steakhouse building, and 20,000 square feet of commercial space.
MARK HUNT PROJECTS
Developer Mark Hunt, who along with his investors has amassed about 10% of the commercial property in the downtown core over the last few years, has stayed busy going through various city approval processes to remodel or scrape-and-replace several of his buildings.
Most recently, Aspen City Council in August signed off on plans to replace the Main Street Conoco, across from Carl’s Pharmacy, with a two-story, 6,000 sq ft commercial building. Hunt originally proposed to build an affordable hotel on the site, but the plan was shot down by voters in 2015. A construction timeframe and tenant mix are unknown at this time.
Hunt also recently reached a compromise with the City to build a two-story commercial building on the site of the Red Onion Annex, a now-one-story building on the Cooper Avenue Mall that is temporarily housing a yoga studio. Hunt was able to extend his vested development rights on the building by two years by agreeing not to build a previously approved third-floor penthouse. Hunt’s partnerships own the buildings on either side of the Red Onion Annex: the historic Red Onion, which is very unlikely to see any redevelopment, and the Bidwell Building on the prominent Cooper and Galena corner, which has locked-in approvals to replace it with another two-story retail building.
Hunt also has approvals in place to convert the iconic Crystal Palace building into a 16-room luxury hotel, build an affordable 40-room hotel on the site of the Buckhorn Arms building across from City Market (where Domino’s Pizza is), scrape and replace the former Aspen Daily News building on Hopkins with a two-story retail building similar to his Aspen One building next door (home to Lululemon and Theory), redevelop a small retail building on the Hyman Mall next to New York Pizza, replace the “Pismo” building on the Cooper Mall with a two-story commercial building, and create more enclosed space between and outside of the buildings housing the Jimmy’s Bodega and Grey Lady restaurants on the Mill Street Mall. We last wrote about those projects, and more, in November 2015.
Pitkin County is further along, having finalized plans earlier this summer to overhaul its 17,000-square-foot Courthouse Plaza Building on Main Street, and build a 24,000-square-foot addition for the Sheriff’s Office on the back corner of the lot. Construction is set to begin this fall. Departments that were housed in Courthouse Plaza have moved to various locations from Aspen to Basalt, with the most essential, high-traffic functions remaining in town. A map of those locations can be found on Pitkin County’s website, here.
Meanwhile, the Aspen Police Department is also getting ready to move out of its longtime digs in the Pitkin County Courthouse, as infrastructure work has begun on its future home on the Zupancis property at 540 E. Main St., where the Parking Department has been housed for the last few years. Final designs and constructions plans are taking shape for a 15,000 sq ft facility that will consolidate police operations there — a significant upgrade from the 6,200 sq ft in four different locations today.
The biggest, most complex, and most divisive municipal space issue is a debate over the appropriate future location for city offices. Having for several years outgrown its headquarters in the historic armory building on Galena Street (with several departments housed in rented and city-owned spaces around town), City Council conceptually approved plans last year to build a 52,000 sq ft City Hall between Galena Plaza and Rio Grande Place that would house all city functions under one roof. Voters narrowly said yes to an advisory question that would convert the vacated armory to a community center.
But city critics have labeled the new building Aspen’s Taj Mahal, and now City Council is divided on the plan. Council members Art Daily and Ann Mullins support the one-roof City Hall plan, while Councilman Bert Myrin has come out in favor of an alternate plan to keep city offices in a remodeled armory and build a smaller building at Galena Plaza. Mayor Steve Skadron is leaning toward the alternate plan, and Councilman Adam Frisch is currently the swing vote. City staff are estimating the one-roof plan to cost $31.2 million, while the two-roof plan would be more expensive, $36 million to $38.6 million.