Aspen’s version of globalization angst has spurred some interesting debate of late. With Aspen City Council in the midst of policy discussions on new commercial regulations for downtown, a proposal has surfaced to curtail the proliferation of high-end retail chains. But whether it goes anywhere is now the big question.
In late November, an ad-hoc citizens’ group publicly floated the idea that “formula retail” brands be subject to a “conditional use” review process if they want to open a store in Aspen. Under the proposal that the group has been working on for several months, any chains with 11 or more outlets worldwide would trigger the city review, which would look at criteria such as whether the proposed store adds diversity to the town’s retail base, according to articles in the Aspen Daily News.
Driving this movement is the concern that high-end retail chains, which are thought to be in a better position to afford Aspen’s escalating rents than locally owned businesses, are taking over downtown. Retail chains are estimated to comprise 60% of the stores in the downtown core.
Meanwhile, Aspen City Council has been working through a series of policy proposals to address commercial development, in response to a nearly year-long moratorium on most commercial applications instituted in March 2016. The legislation the council is crafting includes a downtown height limit of 28 feet, prohibiting free-market residential in the downtown core, and new design guidelines that would encourage “second-tier” commercial spaces (such as those in basements, second floors, or off alleys), which would likely have more affordable rents.
When the citizens’ group, which consists of two former Aspen mayors (Bill Stirling and John Bennett) and venture capitalist Jerry Murdock, officially presented its proposal at a City Council meeting (they had been lobbying behind the scenes for a while), it was met with some enthusiasm. Council even directed staff to draft some specific policy language to consider at a later meeting — but they have since backed off.
At the December 5 council meeting, most council members expressed their preference for completing work on policies in progress since the moratorium, rather than rushing through discussion and action on a completely new proposal.
But, as is frequently the case in Aspen, that’s not the end of it. The citizens’ group has hinted that it may pursue its proposal through the city’s petition and referendum process, which most recently curbed the council’s power to grant zoning variances and overturned the approval of a Main Street hotel proposal. This distinct possibility prompted Mayor Steve Skadron to quip, “Here’s the catch: It’s coming whether you like it or not,” according to the Aspen Daily News.
More recently, the group suggested holding a daylong community forum, which would include retail stakeholders and proponents as well as opponents of chain store legislation, with the objective of achieving some community consensus on the issue. The forum idea would ideally avoid a petition and referendum process, but would hopefully result in a suggested policy the City could consider adopting.