Another Day, Another Windmill

If I had to personify downtown Gunnison, it would be as a stolid middle-class citizen with aspirations of a glitzy, diamond-studded cocktail-circuit existence. These aspirations have been around probably longer than I have, and they are just as unrealized as they were when I first became aware of them.

I have friends who are trying to find housing they can afford for both themselves and their business. They have run up against the city government’s aspiration for this blingy existence. They need a conditional use from the city planning commission to be allowed to live on the ground floor of a building in the Central Business District, and staff has recommended this be denied.

I walked away from my last attempt to be part of the “revitalization” process when it became clear the city wanted an echo chamber, not actual input. It doesn’t really matter how jam-packed we want our downtown to be with retail; it’s just not a realistic expectation.

But city officials are in love with their notion that if we could only revitalize downtown, the prosperity of the entire valley will rise exponentially — a notion that must be in its umpteenth iteration, now taking place among an explosion of online shopping and services.

I wrote this letter last night on behalf of my friends for tonight’s public hearing; while I like to think I made a good case for them, my municipal track record suggests this will just be the nail in the coffin of their hopes.

Members of the Commission:

I am hopeful that you will consider this letter as input for your public hearing for the building at 312 North Main Street.

Up until 2019, I was a 50-year resident of the City of Gunnison, and I continue to operate a business, as I have since 2000, on Main Street (242 and 244 North Main, to be exact). I also have known Sara Covey, who formerly served as a retail consultant for my business, and Peter Darling, my electrician, for about two decades.

I would like to support their request for a conditional use of this property as an office/residence. I base this support far less on my personal relationship than as a member of the Central Business District, although with this couple you would have long-term, responsible and local ownership of this building.

The city likes to place a lot of faith in the One Valley Prosperity Project recommendations. I can’t really tell you how many “revitalization” efforts and committees I have not only watched but participated in, including the Vibrancy Initiative, during the 37 years I have worked in the CBD.

In order to revitalize anything, you have to have tenancy, and to get from my business to this building, which looks very much like a residence, one walks past a building with two store fronts that have been vacant for a year or more (excepting temporary use by the county Democrats), a dentist and an office building, which does have the option of second-floor living quarters. The building in question was last used as a retail space, as near as I can recall, when Movie Marvels operated a video rental store.

Since then it has been occupied, when it is occupied, by offices — engineering and accounting are the ones that come to mind. I’m not certain I see much difference between an electrician’s clientele and that of an engineering firm.

When the building is vacant, as it frequently is, the sidewalk is quite difficult to navigate in the winter, as it is now, covered in ice and snow. This is hardly enticing to downtown foot traffic that has been far more envisioned than real, despite the periodic occupation of an otherwise vacant lot to the north by food trucks, which is then followed by more office space, all of it currently health services, all of it with second-story residences.

It feels as though you are penalizing both the current owner and this couple’s request for office/living space by imagining that someday soon someone will want to purchase this space in order to sell retail goods. If the last three attempts to use this building, which looks very much like a house, have been residential and the last retail use was decades in the past, it seems the market is trying to tell you something, loud and clear.

I see where you are concerned about setting precedent, allowing CBD space to be taken over by residential space. Unfortunately, you are too late: that precedent was set many years ago when a family was allowed to move into what had been a furniture store. That building, in the second block of Main, remains a residence with a minute amount of office space and a door with no signage that is never open to the public.

This may seem off-track, but bear with me a moment: In the building now occupied by the Clarke Agency, a previous owner wanted to install an awning over the front sidewalk. The city’s community development director of the time refused to allow the owners to remove so much as a twig from the city-owned tree out front.

And yet, within a year the furniture business in the next block north wanted to remove multiple trees to put up an awning that is half a block long. And since there is an awning that is half a block long, guess what the city’s response to that request was?

The applicant, who had every right to make the request and properly recused himself, was a member of city council at the time. Even though he went through proper channels, it made for really bad optics that the city honored this request while saying no to the one made by someone not involved in city government.

Continuing to pick and choose which properties are required to adhere to the requirements and which will get a pass does not inspire confidence in local government, even if everyone involved in that first retail-to-residential conditional use is no longer affiliated with our municipal government. It’s still there; it’s still a precedent.

As I look across the street from my business at a row of buildings that either support second-story residential use or are rumored to be approaching this offering, I think back to the days many years ago when I faithfully attended nearly all City of Gunnison planning commission meetings. The call at that time in the world of revitalization was for this sort of mixed use, people living right where they work. The thinking, at least at that time, was that this provided its own sort of vibrancy, in addition to possibly allowing people who couldn’t otherwise afford housing in this county who also have an entrepreneurial streak to become or remain members of this community.

I understand that second-story living quarters are not the same as first-story, but what you have before you is a chance for an established business to be able to set up an office in an easily-accessible, visible location that has been previously used as similar office space; the ability of long-time community members to become homeowners; an opportunity for more local ownership and the incumbent responsibility that comes with that on Main Street; and an occupation that is not out of character for a block that includes vacant buildings and lots, many offices and several second-story residential spaces, and the only current retail that of seasonal food trucks.

Thank you for your time and for considering my thoughts. I apologize I did not submit them in time to be placed in your packets.


                                                            T. L. Livermore

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