Aspen City Council clamped down on downtown building heights and restricted the proliferation of penthouses this year, but without a supermajority in favor of the change, the effort led to a historic deluge of development proposals that came forward before the new rules took effect.
2012 opened with Mayor Mick Ireland putting in writing a proposal to limit buildings to 28 feet, down from 42, unless their upper floors were filled with something other than high-end condos that are rarely lived in year-round. Ireland has identified the penthouses as a drag on Aspen’s downtown since they can drive out lower-end uses like affordable restaurants and bars, but the extremely valuable real estate also can finance needed redevelopment of aging buildings.
In late February, Councilman Torre introduced an emergency ordinance that would cap building heights at 32 feet and ban free market condos, which would’ve taken effect immediately if passed. While the idea was supported by a majority of three council members, for an emergency ordinance to pass it needs four votes out of five. Councilmen Derek Johnson and Adam Frisch were holdouts, so the initiative failed. Torre, Skadron and mayor Ireland pressed on, and passed the new zoning rules capping heights at 28 feet the traditional way — where only a majority is needed — on April 2. But with a 30-day lapse before the ordinance actually took effect, downtown property owners had until May 2 to submit proposals under the old rules.
The development community responded. Eight applications — six of which clearly would not be allowed under the new rules — were submitted before the deadline, seeking to take existing one or two story buildings up to three, either through total redevelopment or expansion. Those projects are all now going through or have gone through what could be called an awkward review process.
Council spent the rest of the year in discussions about under what circumstances if any new projects could be allowed to go to three stories. A return to a three-story limit has been proposed for hotels situated on the north side of the street — so as not to cast a shadow like they would on the south side of the street — but nothing has been approved yet.