Lowering building heights and curbing high-end condos in the downtown core, as some within City Hall are proposing, could have the effect of freezing any new construction, according to people tied to the development business.
Aspen City Council will be holding a special meeting tonight at 5 p.m. to consider land-use code amendments. City planners have put forward a package of changes that would bring down the maximum building height in the commercial core zone district from 42 to 38 feet. The limit would go from 40 to 36 feet in the C-1 district that surrounds the immediate core. City development officials’ proposal also would reduce by 33 percent the amount of a building’s square footage that could go to free-market residential development, and require that any free-market condos be accompanied by an equal amount of on-site affordable housing.
The code changes also would impose a minimum “floor-to-floor” height for ground floors of 13 feet and 11 feet, in the commercial core and C-1 districts, respectively. This change, intended to emphasize the historic pattern of downtown commercial development, refers to the distance between the bottom floor and the second floor, encompassing the space in the ceiling plate used for mechanical systems.
The changes have created a certain amount of fear within the development and property-owning community, said architect Charles Cunniffe. He’s had many conversations over the last few weeks with clients who are unsure what they would be able to do or not do if the new rules are passed.
Contractor John Olson was more blunt, saying that any potential redevelopment project would likely be off the table if the proposals becomes law. A three-story building would have to reach about 38 feet if the intention is to keep inhabitants from hitting their heads on the ceilings, Olson said.
As far as the limits to free-market condos, “100 percent of these projects are financed with the penthouses on the top floor,” he said.
“These buildings are just going to decay,” Olson said of any properties where an owner might otherwise be considering redevelopment.
The rules seemed to be geared toward capping building heights at two stories, he said. Such a redevelopment maybe financially viable if real estate prices jump to $5,000 a square foot, he said.
“The irony of all this is that it drives up real estate prices,” Olson said.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland was unmoved when presented with the development community’s criticisms.
“Oh no, they can’t build penthouses,” he said. When asked to respond to the claim that the new rules would freeze development in the core, Ireland said, “Oh whatever, they are always right,” pointing to the financially troubled Snowmass Base Village development.
Ireland said he plans to propose that the new code changes be even more restrictive, capping building heights at 28 feet. A third story would be allowed only if the project provided lodging, affordable housing or some other use deemed to be in the community’s interest, he said (see related story).
Stan Clauson, a planning consultant, said 40-foot building heights are essential if there are to be three-story buildings in town. Otherwise, buildings will be “under-scaled,” he wrote in an email to town planners.
“As for the desire to make it more difficult to develop free-market residential in [the Commercial Core] and C1 [zones],” Clauson wrote in the email. “I believe that this will go against some very valuable trends that will see an increased desire to live in [the] commercial core and participate in its vitality. I personally believe that the community has seen some valuable redevelopment in the past 10 years under infill and that Aspen has not been degraded by new development. It retains its soul and spirit, and has always been a great place to live and work.”