Aspen’s construction sector was the first to reopen this spring and was given additional regulatory leeway by city council this year — an indication of its prominent role in the local economy. A midsummer check-in shows that indeed, even COVID-19 cannot keep the industry down.
The permitting office within the community development department is on par with construction applications from last year, but it’s being tasked with approving them more quickly with less staff.
In a presentation to council last week, Community Development Director Phillip Supino pointed out that, along with the nearly 250 active projects in town, his team was also responsible for reviewing 678 COVID-19 safety plans that contractors were required to submit before resuming work.
“Our experience in community development in the last four to five months has been that construction and development activities have not slowed down,” he said.
Supino noted an influx of smaller interior redevelopments this year as properties change hands, following the growth of real estate sales since the pandemic.
The building department staff meets each week to identify the projects that can be quickly reviewed and approved. In years past, permits could take up to three months between an initial submission and the first review by city staff — under directive to quickly get permits out the door, the review queue is now about four and a half weeks out.
“This is an improvement that really moved the needle in terms of focusing on permit issuance and responding to council direction, but it was also taxing for our staff,” Supino said.
And while the number of permits is tracking with 2019, he said the city does not collect or analyze data that could definitely inform city council on the direct economic impact the development sector has contributed this summer.
“There is very little I can offer you in terms of metrics,” he said.
Building the economy
On April 27 — six weeks after the council declared COVID-19 an emergency and one month out from the first loosening of stay-at-home orders — the city council directed the community development office to adjust some of its construction permit requirements to allow for fast-tracked building in town.
Those changes included allowing for a demolition permit prior to full building permits being approved and extended the dates for which a project could encroach in public spaces. Most summers, that type of work must cease by mid-June. This year, however, it was allowed to carry on until July 1.
While Supino said some of the alterations have been discussed within the department for some time, he credited the working group of developers for bringing the city ideas for ways building could become easier amidst the public health concerns.
“That group was instrumental not only in raising this topic with staff to highlight that construction and development could be an economic tool but also gave us a number of improvement and process ideas that we ended up implementing,” he said.
Leading that charge was developer Mark Hunt, who said under the phased permitting process, he could begin demolishing the Bidwell building on the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall.
Councilmember Ann Mullins was assigned as the liaison to the construction working group. Anecdotally, she said she believed the COVID-19 numbers did not rise with the reopening of construction sites as rapidly as it did once other sectors began to open.
“I want to thank the community and the business sector. They worked so hard to put together what the city could do and the draft protocol,” Mullins said. “I am just very proud of the way we opened up those construction sites.”
City Engineer Trish Aragon said there has been a higher number of complaints to the city about construction this year. Of the increase of public complaints the development office has received since the reopening, 40% were calling with concerns that a construction site was not following proper public health protocols.
Right of way
When city council approved the extended right-of-way encroachment in April, there was concern that Aspen would experience a hollow summer, devoid of the tourists and spenders that events like the Food & Wine Classic and Aspen Ideas Festival bring.
With the thinking being that a slow summer would be an ideal time for an onslaught of construction, they discussed the potential of allowing encroachment to begin earlier than usual on the back-end of the season.
Supino told councilmembers that the visitor numbers have not reflected the low turnout that was expected.
“There was some question as to the intensity of the tourist season this year and the density of people in our core. As far as I’m concerned, those fears have been allayed. There are people downtown, they are conducting business. It’s high season in Aspen,” Supino said.
The council agreed that despite the pandemic, the town remains crowded enough to adhere to the typical post-Labor Day start for encroachment construction.
Councilmember Rachel Richards said allowing construction in the public right of way too soon could be detrimental to the surprisingly high visitor numbers.
“About the only thing we have to offer right now is walking around the mall, looking at the flowers, enjoying the benches and the breeze. So I just wouldn’t want to impact that,” Richards said.
Aragon said once the right-of-way season begins on Sept. 8, five projects will simultaneously be in effect downtown.
“This is the most in-core activity that I have seen in a while,” she said this week.
Contractors have told her they are behind in their projects due to the safety standards required to reduce on-site transmission of COVID-19.
“All of them would like additional work,” she said. “But then when you balance the impacts of allowing them to go into the right of way before September — knowing how busy town is right now — and how that would impact very vulnerable businesses like restaurants, you have to weigh that out.”
Along with Hunt’s Bidwell work, he will also have right-of-way encroachment on the Crystal Palace construction project and the gas station demolition on Main Street.
“This will be highly impactful to our downtown businesses,” Aragon said. “It’s very noisy, it’s excavation, it’s large equipment, it’s constant beeping. This is high, high impact.”