Design for Context & Tradition

In February 2016, the Aspen City Council adopted a one-year moratorium on commercial development. The purpose of the moratorium was to enable open conversation about potential regulatory changes to better align with the community’s master plan, the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP). One of the focal points of the changes was the design of commercial buildings. Aspen adopted city-wide commercial design guidelines in 2007 and has successfully used them for almost a decade. However, a series of recent projects led Council to believe that the existing document did not always result in development that reflected the community’s heritage and values.

The City hired two local architecture and planning firms to assist in a rework of the commercial design guidelines. The scope of work focused on using the framework of the existing guidelines as a starting point, but rewriting them to better reflect development compatible with Aspen’s historic development pattern, newer zoning requirements, and AACP policies.

The process began with extensive public outreach to gain an understanding of what the community felt was appropriate design. In addition to traditional outreach methods such as focus groups, surveys, and open houses, City staff also utilized more unique methods including pop-up interactive booths, an outdoor chalkboard forum, and staff-guided walking tours to diversify the responses and conversations around design.

The public outreach responses led to three very important conclusions, which helped to shape the new document:

  1. new development should complement and reflect (but not imitate) historic development
  2. new development needs more usable outdoor amenity space
  3. the guidelines need to be more enforceable

The overall intent of the new guidelines document was to address these three concerns. While several design guidelines across the country focus more on trying to create a predictable outcome, Aspen’s new document encourages designers to pull inspiration from neighborhood history, creative development examples, and local traditions through flexible guidelines for distinct Character Areas. An entire chapter is focused on creating appropriate and varied outdoor amenity spaces that help reduce the scale of buildings while encouraging vitality and interaction with the public realm. The new document adds a select number of required design “standards” in addition to the flexible guidelines to introduce a higher level of enforceability and accountability for a design project. In addition to these changes, the document was completely redesigned to be more streamlined, graphically compelling, and user-friendly.

The new document was adopted by City Council in January 2017. In the short period of time the new design document has been in use, it has led to more informed conversations about design in Aspen that will ultimately result in projects that more truly reflect the rich history and strong values of the community in the AACP. Both the Commercial Design Guidelines and Standards and AACP can be found at:


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