Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tyranny Tetrazzini on the Menu in Aspen

We’re all familiar with local attempts to “create” affordable housing, which usually means making housing much more expensive for some people in order to lower the rents or mortgages for other people. But I’d never, until recently, heard of a city mandating affordable pub grub.

Aspen is attempting to do just that, however, by conditioning a building permit on the property owner’s creation of a “working man’s bar” on the premises, with menu prices set at the “third lowest” of all the eateries in town. The city is laying down these conditions as part of a “compromise,” after being sued by the builder for petulantly refusing to give the project a go-ahead.

Think it can't happen in America? Think again.

“The settlement contemplates a deed restriction on the property that would require the basement be a 1,800-square-foot bar, restaurant or brewery,” reports The Aspen Times. “The rent on the property can be no greater than 75 percent of the free-market rental for similar basement space in downtown Aspen — and not greater than $50 per square foot for the first year. In return, the City Council will allow the owners to subdivide the property and redevelop it into a mixed-use building.”

Aspen’s City Council doesn’t “want the city to be the ultimate enforcer of the covenants,” adds the Times. “Instead, they said the landlords should bear the burden of proving they are meeting the city’s imposed restrictions.”

How these "unprecedented” (in the Times' words) deed restrictions will be established and enforced, and whether the property owners will actually give in to this regulatory blackmail, is yet to be determined. The next hearing on the matter is set for late September. But the whole thing seems absurd.

Who, for instance, will the city send around to every restaurant in Aspen, collecting menu prices, so an average can be determined? Will this exercise be repeated each time menu prices go up? Will drink prices also be dictated by the city, since affordable imbibing is as rare as affordable eating in swanky Aspen. What decor is required to establish an authentic “working man’s pub” atmosphere, anyway? Will the jukebox have to play a certain quota of Hank Williams tunes? Must peanut shells litter the floor? Will the pool cues be sufficiently warped? And what about that stale beer smell?

These sorts of joints can't just be mandated by City Hall: It can take years of wear and tear to create a bona fide dive.

And what if, after all this, you build a working man’s pub, with working man’s pub prices mandated by City Hall, and it goes broke, because there aren’t enough working men and women left in Aspen to go there? Will City Hall demand that a ski bum hangout, or a Manhattan-style deli, or an all-organic gourmet Pizzeria be put in its place? Where will the meddling, and the madness, end?

A few on Aspen’s City Council have expressed reservations about the arrangement, to their credit. One wondered whether all the restrictions would make it hard to find a tenant -- do ya think? Another “expressed concern that if the city places too many restrictions on the space, few people will be able to make a successful business there,” according to the Times. But common sense and restraint are routinely overridden in Aspen’s rush to stay on the regulatory cutting edge.

I’m sure the property owner, in the interest of moving ahead with a very expensive project, and shedding some legal bills, might be inclined to bend over for this sort of abuse. That would be a shame. Because unless someone stands up to the local despots in Aspen City Hall, and refuses to let such petty and ridiculous conditions be placed on their property rights, the downhill slope toward tyranny is only going to get more slippery in this out-of-control ski town.

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