Aspen City Council opted not to advance a proposed emergency ordinance at Monday’s meeting that would have capped building heights downtown at 32 feet.
Councilman Torre introduced the ordinance and hoped to see it passed on first reading — the initial step in City Council review — which would have set up a final public hearing today. Had the ordinance passed then, it would have become effective immediately.
Torre’s plan also would have banned new free-market condos from the downtown core, increased setback requirements and reduced allowed building mass.
Buildings can currently reach as high as 42 feet, with an additional 10 feet above that for mechanical elements and stairwell enclosures, in the commercial core and the immediate surrounding area.
Although council voted 3-2 in favor of the land-use-code-amending ordinance on first reading — with councilmen Derek Johnson and Adam Frisch dissenting — as an emergency ordinance, the law needed four votes to advance.
Council did support introducing the ordinance as traditional legislation. As such, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission will review the land-use code changes next month, with potential final adoption by City Council in early April. The law would become effective 30 days after that.
Torre said a height-lowering emergency ordinance was necessary because the current land-use code allows building sizes that the community does not support.
“I feel like we are setting up these applicants to be villainized,” Torre said. “The fairest thing for this body to do is to let applicants know what this community expects.”
Johnson and Frisch argued that the council should take more time before potentially enacting such changes within a 24-hour window.
“I don’t want to do things we don’t fully understand,” Johnson said. “What will this do to the resort economy? What will this do to other things we haven’t considered?”
Frisch said he supported making potential land-use code changes — “We have a third-floor problem in this community,” he said — but wanted to give the process more time. Within a few months, he said, City Council with the help of the planning staff, should be able to have comprehensive land-use code amendments on the table.
Torre responded that council has been contemplating lowering height limits downtown for “years and years,” and that the public has spoken out strongly against the size of projects that have come before council in recent history.
Although permissible under the land-use code, approvals for the 47-foot-high Aspen Art Museum building in 2010 and this month’s 41-foot-high mixed-use project at Hyman and Hunter (with a 51-foot-high elevator shaft) have drawn criticism from some in the community.
“To not move forward with something as simple as lowering height limits, you are saying that you are willing to entertain an application that reaches those heights,” Torre said, addressing Frisch and Johnson. “I think that’s the wrong move. I think that’s sending the wrong message.”
Community development director Chris Bendon, in discussing the potential ban on free-market condos in the core, said real estate speculation can drown out other types of activity.
“It’s our opinion that there’s nothing inherently bad or wrong with residential uses in a building,” Bendon said, pointing out that Torre lives downtown in a mixed-use building. “What we are concerned about is not the use but the effect the use can have on the health of the commercial core. Speculation can be so strong that it can become the basis of a project, as opposed to community viability.”
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland added that when residential real estate can sell for more than $2,000 per square foot, those potential profits wipe out incentives for developers to provide restaurants, drug stores and other community-serving uses.
Councilman Steve Skadron, who voted for the ordinance, said he’s “not sufficiently persuaded that this is not the right way to go.”