Aspen City Council essentially rolled back the development-inducing infill regulations of the last decade Monday night, capping new downtown buildings at two stories until a later process can determine what is deemed a valuable enough type of project to be allowed to go three stories.
In a special meeting Monday, council voted 3-1, with Derek Johnson dissenting and Adam Frisch absent, in favor of a package of amendments proposed by Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland. The mayor wanted a more extensive downzoning than what was being proposed by city staff.
Currently, buildings can be 42 feet tall, plus 10 feet for mechanical elements on the roof, in the Commercial Core zone district. In the C-1 district surrounding the core, heights can reach 40 feet, plus 10 on the roof. Known as “infill,” these height limits were established between 2003 and 2005, allowing for more development than what could previously go forward.
Staff had proposed lowering those limits to 38 and 36 feet for the core and C-1 districts, respectively, while also reducing allowances for free-market residential development.
Ireland said those changes did not go far enough. He has advocated for months a 28-foot height limit with the potential to go to a third floor on a conditional basis, but he officially put his proposal in writing Sunday night.
Ireland’s code changes, passed by council, ban single-family homes and duplexes from the Commercial Core and C-1 districts, but they do not explicitly ban condos. Ireland said a developer could possibly incorporate a free-market condo in a two-story mixed-use building, but it would have to be accompanied by affordable housing.
Ireland and Councilman Torre both said they think some new three-story buildings would be appropriate downtown, but council must enter a new deliberative process to determine what those projects would look like.
Overnight lodging and historic renovations were mentioned as potential projects justifying three floors. Council hopes to begin that conversation in the next few months, eventually getting to another set of land-use code amendments.
“But we need to be able to decide where and when that is appropriate,” Ireland said of three-story development, as opposed to having 42-foot-tall structures capped by luxury condos being a use allowed “by right.”
Ireland is of the position that too much new development under infill amounts to “stilts underneath penthouses,” driving up real estate prices and out-competing more modest and desired restaurant and retail businesses.
Public comment at the meeting was fairly split between encouraging council to go through with the downzoning, and pleading with council members to take more time before making radical changes.
“I’m concerned that we haven’t really thought [Ireland’s proposals] through,” said David Corbin, the director of planning for Aspen Skiing Co. He added that SkiCo is concerned about rushing code changes through that could harm the viability of lodging projects.
But Jim Smith, a local resident who lives downtown, said council should vote the changes in that night, because delaying would leave more time for developers to submit projects that are not in line with community character, he said.
The ordinance takes effect in 30 days. In the meantime, projects may be submitted under the old rules. In the last month, the city has seen an influx of applications as council has debated making land-use rules more restrictive.
Johnson, the lone “no” vote on council Monday, said such a momentous change should be voted on by the entire board with Frisch present.
At the April 9 regular council meeting, when Frisch will be back, Ireland said he would voluntarily move to reconsider the ordinance so the issue can be debated and voted on again with Frisch in attendance.
Frisch wrote in an email Monday night that he watched the last 20 minuets of the meeting online.
“I am disappointed that such an important community issue was voted on via a special meeting without a full council when everyone knew well in advance there would be only four in attendance [Monday],” Frisch wrote. “It is not about me personally, but I respectfully think it sets an unhealthy [precedent].”
Frisch wrote that he didn’t think a 28-foot height limit “is supportive of a healthy Aspen over the long term.”
“[I] agree one of the main reasons people come to Aspen and more importantly return and enjoy it ... is because our small-town charm and history is still very relevant to today,” he wrote. “But Aspen’s foundation was also built on the ideas of progressiveness and vibrancy and being more than a Victorian ski town museum frozen in time.”