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Vitality through legislation

JANE STEBBINS
Summit Daily/Reid Williams Real estate offices now populate the Main Streets of mountain towns.
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Houston resident Heather Smith has chosen Breckenridge as her top vacation spot for years. But next year, she said, she might go somewhere else.”It used to be T-shirt shops on every corner,” she said. “Now, it’s one real estate shop after another. It’s all beginning to look the same. I want something new, something different.”Her sentiments echo those of others who are looking for more interactive and varied things to do on vacation. That lack of vitality – along with the repercussions from terrorist acts and the weak national economy – has lead to a steady decline in retail sales tax in all of Colorado’s resort towns.And town leaders are struggling with the challenge, trying to figure out government’s role in private business.Many are fighting – in council chambers to courtrooms – to keep big-box retailers out of town, saying national chains lead to the demise of quaint mountain towns. Others are relaxing the very ordinances they put in place to prevent chaos to encourage creativity. Others, including Vail, have created “vertical zoning,” that requires professional offices to be on upper floors to leave street-level space open for retailers.Aspen city council members are debating doing so themselves, but have yet to come to a consensus on the issue, said long-range planner Chris Bendon of Aspen, where real estate and title companies are freckled throughout downtown.Proponents of vertical zoning say professional offices provide an unnatural break in the streetscape, thus making it less pedestrian friendly. Tourists notice it, too, when there is a plethora of a certain kind of shop -be it T-shirts, real estate or restaurants – and become bored with the town.Arguments against such zoning include that tourists do stop and gawk at real estate – often the prices – and that putting professional offices upstairs would be detrimental to the capital improvements the building owner has put into the structure.Under a proposed ordinance the Aspen city council will consider this summer, new offices would be allowed to go into ground floor spacees unless that space has stood empty for 12 or more months, at which point no office could go in there again, Bendon said. The only exception would be those offices relocating to spaces currently occupied by other offices.That’s not the common view, however.

Breckenridge Town Manger Tim Gagen said his town council believes in letting the market rule the mix.”I don’t think we should artificially manipulate through zoning who locates where,” he said. “Flexible zoning takes care of that. If you force things to the second floor, the consequences could be vacant storefronts.”And he’s not so sure real estate is such a bad thing. Real estate tax revenue – 1 percent on the sales price – was what supported the economy in the last recession.”Why shouldn’t that be a component of the commercial core?” Gagen said. “Real estate has been one of the more viable economic drivers.”He thinks things will change as demographics change.”What happens when we’re built out?” he said. “There’s always a market for (home sale) turnover, but real estate won’t be the driver as much. We’ll probably see the natural attenuation of real estate business – same with retail.”As towns approach buildout, the number of tourist-oriented shops could decline, while those serving the local sector – furniture, deocrating companies and the like – increase.”That may be one the more natural things to take its place,” Gagen said. “We’ll get businesses not driven by tourists, but locals and second homeowners.”With that approach, Breckenridge could end up with a streetscape similar to Glenwood Springs, considered by many to be one of the success stores. That town’s diversity was inherited from the days when zoning didn’t play as big a role, Bendon said.On the main drag, bookstores fall in line with restaurants, 7-Elevens and a bed and breakfast. Residential units are often above retail stores below, and it’s not uncommon to find an errant deli across the street from a patently residential neighborhood.

It’s tough to regulate that kind of diversity because it evolves over time, Bendon said.And regulation, Aspen is learning, can often hamper that diversity.That city council has decided to relax some of its rules – sign and lighting codes and rules about displays in rights of ways – that affect retailers.”Those regulations are intended to preserve a character,” Bendon said. “But sometimes they kind of freeze it in time. A few things are little overbearing. Relaxing the regulations can make for a more fun environment. A lot of it (vibrancy) isn’t always by regulation, but by peeling away some of the regulation.”It’s a delicate balance.”Regulations are important so you don’t end up with something that’s totally bizarre,” Bendon said. “And you can’t regulate creativity. A lot of times, creativity creates things that you have to react to, and you react to them by regulating them and things become sterile. By relaxing the regulations, you’ll get some things you like and some things you don’t.”City leaders also want to make sure they don’t begin reacting – and regulating – to every little trend that moves onto Main Street.”The message coming out of Aspen is something we all ought to pay attention to,” said Vail town manager Stan Zelmer. “You can’t get carried away and let everything happen. But if you stop being creative, they (merchants) stop trying. Ordinances get so onerous.”He hopes to form a business council next month to outline the challenges and some of the potential solutions, one of which could be relaxing ordinances.

The working modelsAll the town leaders are looking to cities that have had success – including lower downtown Denver.Some of that success is due to getting residential units built in areas that were formely warehouses and industrial uses. Yet that, too comes with drawbacks, notably businesses like barber shops and hardware stores will likely never return.”They’re lost,” Gagen said. “It was the people willing to live down there that made the difference. But even they are not enough of a driver to bring back the original types of business that are part of a classic downtown.”Glenwood Springs officials are trying to develop incentives to encourage residential construction downtown to keep it vibrant.”The polices are in place, but there’s a disconnect between the policies and the investments that we still have to bridge,” said Andrew McGregor, community development director there. “We need to look at planning and zoning; getting people to invest in a confined urban style development takes a bit of time and education.”That city, however, doesn’t have as many service businesses edging out small retailers.Within recent years, city officials have implemented regulations to reward new business owners that come to town. And they recently formed a downtown develpment authority that will ask downtown property owners for a five-mill tax increase to fund the organization and then sell bonds to do redevelopment.Gagen hopes his idea is a sure-fire shot to success: “It’s evolution; a lot of it’s out of your control,” he said. “You just offer the best product that fits with the character of your community, work hard at it and hope that brings success.”Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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