Following a presentation to Aspen City Council last Tuesday for a sketch plan review, developers are moving forward with a lengthy process to potentially replace 148 rental units at Centennial Apartments and add 59 free market units.
The project will likely not come before council again for several months as developers formalize plans for a land use application, including gathering public opinion and finalizing housing partnerships within the region. Council was supportive of the potential project after the presentation and expressed interest in becoming a partner, but concerns were raised about how to find interim housing for the residents of the 148 units — and the possibility that some of the free market units will become short-term rentals.
Several residents spoke at the council meeting of their concerns about the possibility of having to find interim housing should any redevelopment move forward, which the city, planning commission and developers agreed was the No. 1 priority to address.
“The conversation with city council was really, we thought pretty positive on that point that there’s a good kind of recognition from us — from the city, certainly from the tenants — that this is a real key issue,” said Chris Bendon, a co-owner of the planning firm BendonAdams that is working on the project. “It’s a really important issue and really something that needs to be done right, and so kind of alignment on that across city council and a real openness to be part of whatever scenario or series of scenarios we come up with as an interim housing concept.”
Jeff Solomon, who represents the ownership group working on the project, Birge & Held, added that the team is looking forward to finding partners like the city to find solutions to the interim housing questions, but discussions still need to be had before any details are finalized.
“If we can come up with a plan that makes sense to everybody, a portion of that plan would be finding housing for the current residents during any redevelopment process,” Solomon said. “This is something we identified months back before even going into council and have been researching different possibilities and meeting with private and city officials to see what the possibilities are, and it’s somewhat of an ongoing process that’s going to be part of the overall process in any type of redevelopment there.”
There is currently a waitlist for people to move into Centennial Apartments, but Solomon assured that current residents should not have to go back on that waitlist post-construction.
“The idea and the intent would be that all of the current residents would have first right of refusal coming back into the newer units,” he said.
As Mayor Torre said during Tuesday’s meeting, there is no obvious solution to where residents could live during the meantime and creative solutions will be necessary. The rental units are managed by the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority; however, APCHA Compliance Manager Bethany Spitz and Deputy Director Cindy Christensen said in a statement that the authority will not likely be involved in the interim housing process.
“Whether residents could be given the right of first refusal to move back in could be written into development approvals,” the statement said. “However, they would have to qualify for that unit’s category. APCHA would make a recommendation to approve or deny with certain conditions, however, the city does not have to follow our recommendation.”
Solomon added that the intention of the project, including the 59 free market units, is not to create more short-term rentals. APCHA does not allow deed-restricted rental units to be used as STRs, but how to regulate free market units from being used as such is part of an ongoing discussion among city officials.
“We’re discussing how to address that, but the intention is not to create short-term rentals,” Solomon said. “That was one of the first items we began discussing and we’re going to continue discussing how to manage that concern.”
Councilmember Ward Hauenstein — who lives next door to the Centennial Apartments and will be asked to recuse himself from any further discussion on the project — said that regulations could be incorporated into the planned development process that would limit the uses of the free market units. The issue is a concern to the city for many reasons, he said, and the issue is not unique to Aspen.
“The reasons why I think it’s important are the same reasons you see all across the country,” he said. “First of all, the disruption of a neighborhood. You get a four-bedroom STR, and people come in every weekend. They're here to party and they want to have a good time, and they don't care about the neighbors. It has a negative impact on the neighborhood.”
Hauenstein and Councilmember Rachel Richards voiced concerns about how more STRs will impact Aspen’s workforce and transportation. Unlike other Colorado resort towns like Crested Butte and Breckenridge, Aspen does not have a cap on how many STRs are allowed in town. Hauenstein said the city began discussions pre-COVID but got distracted by the pandemic — and discussions will need to resume, he noted.
“A lot of communities are looking at different solutions,” Richards said. “You see some town councils beginning to say, ‘We have a total number of these we will allow in town, period,’ but that makes me think how many will go underground? At what point does that not work?”
She added that STRs are such a concern because they are employment generators, meaning they require regular maid service and maintenance, and they are spread all across town, unlike regular hotels. The issue is something that will need to be considered by state legislators because of its scale, Richards continued.
“I think that the evolution of STRs in Colorado has grown fairly unregulated and without any look to the long-term consequences or equities of the situation,” she said. “At some point now, when you’re approving a free market residential growth of any sort, are you really approving a new hotel room or rooms, and is the mitigation appropriate for the actual uses that are going to be occurring?”
City Manager Sara Ott said that in regards to the Centennial project, the city will need to develop an STR code and a planned development process, which will determine what the specific units can be used for.
“There is a need for community conversation about whether there should be additional regulation of STRs in a lot of different ways,” she said.
Council and the planning commission will have significant roles in the project moving forward, and Ott said the process will not be quick.
Residents of Centennial Apartments who have not yet voiced their concerns or community members who would like to share an opinion are encouraged to reach out to Jeff Solomon via email at email@example.com to set up a meeting or discussion.