Despite the current Aspen City Council’s reputation for splitting 3-2 along what could be termed ideological lines, most decisive votes over the last two years included one dissenting voice — and that voice was rarely the same.
All four current council members are running for mayor, begging a closer look at their voting records of the last two years.
The number of land-use applications seen by this City Council — comprised of Adam Frisch, Derek Johnson, Steve Skadron, Torre and Mayor Mick Ireland — has fallen off the frenzied pace of the end of the 2000s, but there have been some significant decisions on projects that will change the face of Aspen. Public projects, such as the Pitkin County Library expansion, the city’s Castle Creek hydro power plant and the still-pending Aspen Valley Hospital expansion, have taken up much of council’s time. There also was a significant effort to lower height limits and restrict luxury residential real estate in the downtown core, which resulted in a downzoning plan that undid much of the development-inducing “infill” ordinances championed by a different City Council 10 years ago.
The following is based on a review of meeting minutes and agendas on file with the Aspen city clerk’s office.
At the end of 2011, council was dealing with a proposal to redevelop much of the 500 block of Hyman Avenue containing Little Annie’s restaurant, the Benton building and a corner parking lot.
Aspen Core Ventures, LLC, managed by businessman and developer Nikos Hecht, acquired the five parcels containing the two buildings and parking lot in a distressed sale. He proposed a complete redevelopment and the demolition of Benton and Annie’s. Facing community opposition, Hecht submitted a new proposal that would preserve the two structures, in exchange for millions of dollars worth of zoning and affordable housing concessions.
Eventually, council and Hecht negotiated a package that had him provide one affordable housing unit and a $1 million payment into the housing fund, which together is the equivalent of housing around nine employees. A typical project of its size would normally require housing be provided for more than 20 employees. Hecht also secured the right to build a 6,000-plus-square-foot penthouse on the corner lot, when city rules normally cap downtown condos at 2,500 square feet. Frisch and Torre led the negotiations with Hecht on behalf of council.
The project passed 4-1 on Feb. 13, 2012, with Ireland dissenting. The majority of council felt the trade-off was acceptable because two buildings with historic value would be preserved, but Ireland called the project blackmail. The mayor asked why should the city be giving away so much in concessions to keep them if the buildings really are historic?
The fact that the corner building in Hecht’s proposal, which will have elements on the roof reaching 50 feet, was compliant with the city’s zoning codes highlighted much of council and the community’s displeasure with those rules.
In the midst of the Little Annie’s negotiations, Ireland brought forward the idea of lowering height limits on downtown buildings to 28 feet from the existing 42 feet, and banning free-market residences from new redevelopments. The idea was that luxury penthouses do not contribute to a vibrant downtown, since their owners are not often interested in sharing a building with a busy restaurant and bar, and that $2,500-a-square-foot real estate drives speculation and prices out affordable retailers.
On Feb. 27, 2012, Torre proposed an emergency ordinance capping heights at 28 feet and banning free-market condos. If passed, it would’ve taken effect immediately. The measure had the majority support of Ireland, Skadron and Torre, who said they would be willing to consider some uses for a third story, but wanted time to hash that out.
The measure did not pass, however, because an emergency ordinance requires four votes. Frisch and Johnson said they were opposed to passing the policy as an emergency ordinance as a matter of principle, and wanted more time to consider the consequences.
Council brought a similar version of the same policy forward through the normal process, which only requires three votes to pass but takes about a month, followed by an additional 30 days before the ordinance can take effect. Council voted in favor of the ordinance 3-1 at a special meeting on April 2, 2012, with Johnson dissenting and Frisch absent. Johnson said he was worried that banning penthouses would have unintended consequences, and that most Aspen visitors didn’t have a problem with three-story buildings. The majority felt that two-story buildings were more in line with Aspen’s historic character, saying they were willing to consider other uses, potentially lodging, local-serving commercial and affordable housing where three-story buildings could be allowed.
Between Torre’s emergency ordinance proposal, and the beginning of May when the downzoning took effect, six landowners submitted projects for third-story elements that wouldn’t be allowed under the new code. All those projects are still working through the approval process.
On Jan. 14 of this year, Frisch joined Torre, Skadron and Ireland in voting to allow three-story buildings on the north side of the street if the project was a lodging development. Frisch, who is in favor of allowing some free-market residential downtown, said the tweak was a step in the right direction, while Johnson said he did not think it was likely that small lodges would be proposed for downtown.
Boomerang Lodge change in use: The developers of the Boomerang Lodge, who received approval in 2006 to tear down and rebuild the 1960s hotel, were having difficulty finding financing for their condominium and lodging project. When the city approved a new program that allowed private developers to build affordable housing, and then sell credits to other developers who needed to meet employee housing requirements, Boomerang representatives saw an opportunity to remake their project into something more viable. However, by seeking to amend the 2006 approval, the developers opened their project up to more criticism from neighbors, many of whom were unhappy about the size of the would-be new hotel.
The project was approved in July 2011, with Torre and Skadron voting “no,” citing density concerns.
Plastic bag ban: Council was debating a fee to discourage the use of plastic bags in early 2011, but held off on the measure until after the May 2011 municipal election. With the new board seated, the proposal came up again, but council members began to question whether an outright ban on plastic bags, plus a 20-cent fee for paper bags would be a better policy. The policy passed 4-1, with Johnson dissenting, saying he did not think the ban was appropriate in a tourism-based economy. Frisch was initially not in support of a fee, but said he would support a ban.
Lift One Lodge: The project will add 77,000 square feet of timeshare and condo development to South Aspen Street, near Willoughby and Lift One parks. The plan had been rejected by a prior council in early 2009, and developers came back with a 40 percent smaller building, which made the proposal more palatable. The developers were asking for 10 years to begin building the project, when most approvals only give three years, and Torre led the charge to lower that to five years. The project passed unanimously on Nov. 14, 2011, although Johnson sat the vote out because he lives within 300 feet. The project has yet to begin construction.
Pitkin County Library expansion: The 7,000-square-foot expansion to the Pitkin County Library needed city approval because planners wanted to go out 16 feet beyond a 44-foot easement where they had a right to build. The plan also needed voter approval because the library needed $5 million in public financing to build the project, which would require a tax increase. Council officials questioned the need for some aspects of the plan, including a soaring canopy, which the library scaled back. Council ultimately granted a 4-1 land use approval with Skadron dissenting, saying the development was bigger than it needed to be.
Council unanimously approved many policies in the last two years, including a rezoning proposal for the Castle Creek hydro plant, designating the site where the power house would be used as an industrial area; a plan allowing unlimited vacation rentals for private homeowners, as long as they get a business license, pay sales tax and have a property manager who can deal with problem renters; council also lowered the amount of fluoride in the city’s drinking water to conform to new federal guidelines.