All Candidates Agree: Downtown Aspen is a Mess

All Candidates Agree: Downtown Aspen is a Mess

Editor’s note: This is part of a series about mayoral and City Council candidates’ views on the top issues Aspen faces today.

In a city that thrives on high-end boutiques, posh eateries, chic bars and lacks workers, affordable housing, and locals-friendly businesses in the core, how do the candidates for the Aspen City Council and mayor feel about downtown’s current construction status and is there an answer?

Mayoral candidate Tracy L. Sutton

Sutton isn’t impressed.

“Residential and commercial construction projects in the downtown core need to be completed. We need a vibrant downtown core for both visitors and locals to enjoy. This is critical for local businesses,” she said.

“I know of cases where long permitting processes have been an issue. In general, construction projects have stalled for a variety of other reasons, including a lack of workers, inflation, and rising interest rates.”

“I am concerned that uncompleted projects will continue to damage the charm and character of Aspen’s downtown. Our charming downtown is essential to our appeal as a mountain destination.”

Her solution?

“This issue has been relevant for some time. I think the city should have addressed it sooner. We need measures that speed up permitting processes and discourage long construction delays. We also need to discuss with developers what their specific concerns are. More than anything, a process should be initiated as soon as possible.”

Mayor Torre

“Current downtown commercial construction is a mess. The unfinished projects of one developer are having negative impacts on our community, businesses and visitors. These projects were approved before my terms. We are trying to work with these projects to get them completed, and many have their permits, but the majority of this is controlled by the developer and the complex and changing projects,” Torre said.

“My biggest concern with this issue is what we are losing for local owned, local serving, affordable, inclusive places, and being replaced with just the opposite. The current renovation and construction will get completed, but what will we be left with? For now, I seek to support getting construction done and getting tenants in the core.”

He said current downtown residential construction should encourage units that are lived in. “We need to allow AH (affordable housing) unit development, on-site, downtown. Free-market units should be lived in or used, and integrate into the commercial core, not stifle local business or sit empty.”

“The biggest obstacle to progress and completion of the current downtown construction is that the progress is delayed and dictated by money. The city accepts its responsibility for permit and process improvements that need to be made, but also is credited for working to get these projects going. Ultimately, the tenancy or vacancy, planning and execution of a downtown project is determined by the owner and developer, and their strategy.”

Could this have been prevented?

“My opinion is some of the land use codes and project approvals that are playing out now should not have been approved. We have a few code changes to make and also need to exercise more discretion in approval for variances from the code. Some current projects have joined buildings, share systems, and develop across properties. This has led to complex safety, permit and building issues that are delaying completion.”

His solution?

“As mayor, with the support of council members, I have supported more resources to our Community Development Department for improved, efficient plan review and permitting. We have requested and are getting process improvements that will reduce time and costs. We are also looking at timely completion assurances that we can implement for the community.”

City Council candidate Bill Guth

“There’s very little downtown (if you’re referring to the core) residential construction at the moment. We are at a sore spot in Aspen’s history in terms of commercial construction. Nobody likes the holes in the ground. We need to address this and be willing to make some real compromises to get through this era, and then learn from it moving forward,” Guth said.

“It’s unpleasant for residents and visitors, under supply of businesses, and loss of tax revenue. There is shared responsibility for the current situation between developers and staff, but that’s somewhat irrelevant — let’s find a way forward.”

His solution?

“Sit down with developers and staff. Listen. Make compromises. Understand one another’s position. Get it done,” said Guth.

“Construction is cyclical. It’s difficult to predict when peaks are going to occur. But a more streamlined and efficient entitlement process and a more efficient building permit review process may have helped in some areas. Communication and collaboration are the most critical element we’ve been missing and that could have gone a long way to making this situation less painful.”

City Council member Skippy Mesirow

“It’s overwhelming and negatively impactful,” Mesirow waid. “The transition of our neighborhoods from lived-in to STRs (short term rentals) and vacant investment properties has been eroding the community for decades. It’s time to reverse this trend with a development-neutral policy framework that creates affordable housing without new development and repopulates our neighborhoods.”

The same goes for commercial development. 

“We must ensure that approved projects are delivered quickly and efficiently with a process that delivers on the expectations of the community and the developer, eliminating unnecessary time, frustration and cost to benefit all,” he said. 

His campaign messaging continually focuses on what describes as people-first core.

“It’s time to end the empty holes and vacancy. Our council approved meaningful steps in this direction and is bringing in the development community to the table to work with us towards common goals. We should transition to a people-first core, to bring back affordable business, restore the commons, and re-integrate the community.”

His solution?

“The current holes in the ground were approved by previous councils, so we could not have changed the projects. We could have prioritized working with the development community to update our process and avoid delays in some instances, and we chose to prioritize COVID response, affordable housing, the environment, residential development, and de-construction. I stand by that. Now is the time to shift focus.”

He said the current council “moved fixing the construction problem, affordable business, and new policy for right-of-way activation to the top of community development’s work plan for 2023.”

“It’s a 50-year Gordian knot with culpability on all sides. Our job as leaders is to look past that, take ownership of our part, bring everyone to the table and align everyone’s expertise without judgment at solving a shared problem and lead on ending a lingering us-vs.-them mentality.”

City Council candidate Sam Rose

“Residential permitting is anti-local. I have talked to many long-time Aspen residents that want to renovate their aging homes. They must wait months to years to get their permits to do so and then on top of that have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fees. This is all before construction starts,” Rose said.

“There are too many empty spaces and stalled projects. Although many of these would not be places many community members could go, some, such as the Red Onion will hopefully reopen soon and continue being a community stronghold. There are obvious doubts that these places will create community value because of the price tag but some very well could. Beyond that, Aspen looks less like its beautiful self with these rundown buildings and holes in the ground.”

“Sales tax pays for many things that community members can enjoy, such as financial aid for child care. If these spaces can’t be of a community mindset, at least the tax revenue generated by them should/could be.”

Rose’s biggest argument is with the permit process.

“The permitting process is costly and not efficient. Building permits are sent in and notes are exchanged for months. Once a permit is approved, change orders are the natural next step as the owner of the building finds a tenant and the tenant almost always wants changes. The change order then essentially starts the process over again,” said Rose.

He also pointed to one specific developer.

“It is unfathomable how many empty spaces and stalled projects Mark Hunt has,, and more needs to be done to work with him to get these done without the city giving up any concessions. We need more symbiotic relationships with the development community and more of a net positive for the community when deals are done. 

His solution?

“The city could hire more staff to help move these permits forward in an efficient manner. Another solution is tying some of the permit process to an architect’s license so that every minute detail does not need to be looked at and approved. This is something they do in other municipalities. And outsource much of the permitting process so as to not overuse our own staff with the amount of permits that need processing while being understaffed. Quality assurance should be used, but that should be more efficient than the process now where some permits are outsourced, but then double checked by city staff.”

By: Julie Bielenberg I Aspen Times I February 20, 2023

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