The Aspen City Council unanimously directed its community development department to dig into ways to regulate unfinished construction projects in the downtown core — but the work most likely won’t start until the third quarter of 2023 and will spill into 2024.
Community development leaders asked the council to review its list of priorities for 2023, rearrange them where needed and see where new issues such as “community vitality” fit in.
Stalled projects in the core were clearly a cause of concern for council members.
“The goal is obviously to avoid what our downtown is going through currently, with boarded up buildings on either end and a big hole in the middle,” said Councilman John Doyle.
He wants to make sure “it never happens again.”
Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who isn’t seeking re-election in March, suggested that the community development department split construction management and project delays away from consideration of other commercial core issues, such as policies for outdoor dining for restaurants, signing, lighting and advertising.
“I think that’s what our community is calling for,” she said.
Richards contended that Aspen faces a substantial amount of commercial redevelopment in the years ahead as older landlords sell property and new owners have different visions for property uses.
“I mean, we’re nowhere near built out,” Richards said. “So we’re going to see construction management policies critical to the survivability of the vitality of the core as these many projects come in.”
Stalled construction projects and boarded-up storefronts are much more visible for the public than many other issues the city is working on, she added.
Mayor Torre supported looking at construction management as a separate project, but he expressed hope that the issue might ease on its own.
“I want to just add good news in this,” Torre said. “We’ve heard a lot about this from our community members — I really feel like we’re getting to the other side. We have a lot of development planning going on in the downtown core. It got stacked up. There’s been half a dozen-plus projects going on downtown.
We’re going to get through this,” he continued. “I’m glad we’re looking at ways to improve our process and our system, but I’m also very excited that we’re moving through this one period. I am hopeful we won’t see this kind of situation in our downtown core as a regularity. That’s why I have high hope this is just an anomaly and we’re working through this particular time in Aspen’s history.”
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he supported finding ways to encourage developers to keep construction moving and discourage unfinished construction business.
“I think the goal is all the same: We want these projects, once they’re approved, we want them built in a timely manner,” he said. “We’ve seen time and time again where a little bit [of progress] is made, then it’s changing and everything keeps on going and going and going.”
There was no finger-pointing by the council at any specific developer. A substantial faction of the citizens interested in the topic has complained specifically about numerous delayed projects undertaken by Mark Hunt’s M Development — most prominently the hole where the former Bidwell building was located at the intersection of Cooper Avenue and Galena Street. A representative for Hunt’s organization previously told the Aspen Daily News that construction has stopped in several cases after changes were required in the approvals, and there were delays getting new building permits from the city. Some council members expressed frustration Monday night that substantial changes are sought after a detailed review process is completed.
Hauenstein said he wasn’t casting blame on one party or another. He just wants steps taken to keep projects moving. The community development department is already taking a handful of steps to speed its permitting process, according to Department Director Phillip Supino.
He proposed the department work with the council to scope out the project during the third quarter of 2023 or later. The work will extend “well into 2024,” he said.
Ben Anderson, deputy director of the department, agreed that it is a “doozie of a project.”
While moving projects along was important to the council, it won’t bump other projects that are already underway off the community development department’s priority list. Looking at the city’s affordable housing credits program and refinements to the outdoor lighting code will be worked on in the first and second quarters this year. Work on a demolition allotments program will be undertaken in the second and third quarters. In the third or fourth quarter, the staff will work on “cleaning up” language in the city land use code that doesn't pertain to policy.
At Richard’s suggestion and the rest of the council’s agreement, construction management issues will be split from other commercial core issues and given priority among new projects.