Aspen tightens ban on renovations
ASPEN – A new building ban went into effect Wednesday in downtown Aspen.The new moratorium begins just as the council wraps up discussions about another moratorium set to end Feb. 28. Both prohibitions are intended to give the council a reprieve from incoming development proposals to search for ways to protect the city’s character.The difference is that the new moratorium, approved by the city council Tuesday, addresses the interiors of buildings, which aren’t covered directly under the first.The new moratorium puts a six-month halt to interior renovations that would require building permits – as well as a number of minor changes that normally don’t need city approval. The ordinance lists as off limits, “tiling, cabinets, counter tops, and similar finish work, including window and door trim, baseboard, wainscot, and built-in furniture such as booths, banquets, bars, and shelving.”Renovations that have been granted a main building permit but not permits for subcontractors can still apply for those secondary permits. “Painting, papering, and carpeting which does not require a building permit” are also allowed.Businesses that simply intend to change locations, as often happens in the spring, should be exempt from the ban if they do not need to make significant changes to the interiors of their new buildings. And renovations to noncommercial space, such as apartments in the downtown core, are also exempted.Businesses with plans for work that is covered by the moratorium can appeal to the city’s community development director, who has some latitude to allow certain projects to proceed.
Although the moratorium came, in part, in response to news that the popular locals’ restaurant The Red Onion will close in March, the emergency ordinance won’t necessarily save that business.The Onion’s owners have said the sharp increase in rent will make it too difficult to remain profitable, and the ordinance doesn’t prevent such changes in the lease.The building’s owners can rent the space to a new tenant and even change the use, “as long as they don’t require a building permit,” said City Attorney John Worcester.City Councilman Jack Johnson said the moratorium is about far more than just the Onion, though.”I think the conversation’s a hell of a lot bigger than one business or one building,” he said, observing that the community has been talking about preserving its character for some time. “We haven’t done a damn thing except talk about it.” he said.Everyone who spoke at Tuesday’s city council meeting recognized the desire to preserve Aspen’s character, some for sentimental reasons, others for economic reasons.”I speak from the heart and not the mind,” said a waitress from the ill-fated restaurant. “The Onion’s not just the bar … It’s far more than that.”The Red Onion building itself dates back to the silver boom of the late 1800s, and in the 1940s, it became home to one of Aspen’s first apres-ski spots.
Stan Clauson, chairman of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, recalled a different approach to revitalizing the town’s business core in 2001. In response to a sluggish economy that threatened Aspen with empty storefronts, Aspen established the Economic Sustainability Committee.”We were extremely worried at that time that Aspen was losing its ability to attract visitors,” he said.Clauson cited several strategies from that effort that helped bring vitality to the city’s core without a building ban, including city projects to encourage people to “dwell” on the pedestrian malls.Clauson cautioned that the new moratorium would undo the effects of the city’s earlier efforts by eliminating the “continuity” of businesses on the mall, creating dead spaces. That detracts from the Aspen experience, he said, discouraging tourists from visiting and harming the local economy.Councilwoman Rachel Richards, a nearly 30-year veteran of Aspen, acknowledged the city can’t stop change and that certain changes can be healthy, but she cautioned against a direction toward a “homogenized” city.”We are losing something,” she said. “We are losing a sense of uniqueness, a sense of character … that has been very disappointing to our repeat guests.”Richards recalled Aspen’s more storied past as a “wild and crazy” place whose energy attracted outside visitors.But a new “elitism” has replaced that former energy, she said, and one of the most frequent comments she hears from return visitors is, “I don’t fit in this community. These [stores] are for the upper 5 percent or 1 percent of the country.”
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