Aspen’s pedestrian malls are beginning to show their age, and city officials are cautiously considering whether it’s time for elective surgery.
Plans to dig up the 1970s-era, brick-laden malls and replace aging infrastructure underneath have been dormant for nearly two years, but are now resurfacing as Aspen’s elected officials face some of the most important decisions they’ll make in office.
As with any surgery, it’s a big deal and the patient will likely never be the same again.
“It’s going to be impactful,” said Jeff Pendarvis, the city’s capital asset director. “We are reevaluating what we are going to do and vetting it to make sure we are going about it the right way.”
He will update Aspen City Council later this month on the overhaul plan of 130,000 square feet on Hyman, Mill, Cooper and Galena streets covering three blocks.
The landscape architecture firm Design Workshop developed a conceptual design for the city in 2017 and 2018, which was based off of three years of planning and public feedback.
It includes everything from moving the bathrooms at Wagner Park to removing the fire pit on Galena Street, to a possible reconfiguring of outdoor dining spaces and replacing the early 1900s bricks with replicas that can provide an even surface, among other changes.
Those design documents, which have been shelved since last year after council approved them, are being dusted off for consideration by the newly elected, Mayor Torre-led council.
The impetus for the “big dig” is what’s lurking beneath the malls, which were built in 1976. Not only is the brick surface more than 40 years old, much of the malls’ underground infrastructure predates that by a couple of decades.
Utility lines for water, gas, telephone, electric and storm water are due to be replaced or upgraded. Simultaneously, city officials say the uneven surface needs to be redone so it meets Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
“This is to make Aspen inclusive and accessible,” said City Manager Sara Ott, acknowledging that the bricks are not ideal for walkers and wheelchairs. “It’s not the experience we want for our urban park.”
Ott also recognizes that such an endeavor is a “huge project” and will impact hundreds of businesses and thousands of citizens and visitors.
That’s why city officials have slowed their roll on taking the plan to the next step, which is creating schematic design and then construction drawings.
The entire project will be reframed for council during a work session scheduled for Sept. 24, said Darla Callaway, a principal landscape architect with Design Workshop.
“We’ve been sitting on this for a while,” she said. “The next phase of design will be crucial for options. … (The conceptual design) is a toolkit for decision makers and we’ll be there to help the city and community make the right decisions.”
Just under $4 million had been budgeted this year for schematic design and construction drawings, but it hasn’t been spent.
Ott said some money may be allocated for the 2020 budget, but it will be contingent upon what council decides.
As Design Workshop refines its scope of work, one aspect of the plan that Pendarvis plans to highlight is developing design standards for underground infrastructure and utilities and criteria for future development.
“We need those so developers know what to expect and what the design standards are,” he said. “We don’t have a project yet, it’s about design.”
It’s very likely that some buildings on the pedestrian malls get redeveloped before the bricks get ripped up.
Landlord Mark Hunt has plans to raze and replace the two restaurant spaces at 305 and 307 S. Mill St. next year, as well as transform the two buildings next to the Red Onion on the Cooper Avenue Mall into a performing arts center for Jazz Aspen Snowmass.
Pendarvis said upon further investigation, underground infrastructure might not be as bad as officials once thought.
Mayor Torre, who has previously served on council and has seen the conceptual design, said it’s inevitable that changes will be made.
“Look, we’ve got to do some work on this stuff and I don’t want to wait so long that we have problems,” he said. “I’m supportive of what I’ve seen, but I want to make positive changes, not broad changes.”
AN EXPERIMENT IN URBAN DESIGN
When they were first developed, the now-iconic malls were a hotly debated and controversial topic. This redevelopment may be headed in the same direction.
The community was split in the 1970s over the appropriateness and legality of blocking off public streets and eliminating parking, along with potentially discouraging drive-up businesses.
The idea first came up in the mid-1950s, when Aspen’s elected officials were planning for the town’s future growth.
In June of 1956, an architectural design class from the University of Utah made a presentation on how Aspen might develop in the coming years, according to a state cultural resources survey.
The students got involved after the previous year’s Design Conference at the Aspen Institute, which was headed up by Los Angeles-based architects Edgardo Contini and Victor Gruen.
Gruen had designed the first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in the U.S. in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The idea of closing one or more of Aspen’s unpaved downtown streets and turning them into a pedestrian mall emerged in 1961.
“Clearing the way for the construction of a permanent mall proved to be more complicated and would take another fifteen years,” reads the state document. “Major issues had to be addressed, including community approval, financing, master planning, and clearing legal hurdles to this type of development.”
During that time, several temporary pedestrian malls around downtown Aspen were tested out for days at a time, with the first one introduced by a citizen’s committee led by young architect Richard Lai and nonprofit arts director Geraldine Price.
Construction crews landscaped different blocks with graveled walkways, shrubs, trees, benches, a bandstand and works of art.
After many stops and starts, the first bricks for the permanent mall were laid in the summer of 1976 by a skilled team of masons from New York. They worked six days a week, 10 hours a day.
With most of the construction complete in October of that year, the mall was officially dedicated.
“A total of 315,000 bricks were acquired to pave the three blocks that would form the mall,” according to the cultural resources survey. “All of them came from St. Louis, which was in the process of tearing up and replacing streets that had been paved in the early twentieth century.”
Purchased for $.40 each, the bricks cost the city of Aspen a total of $126,000.
Two manufacturers were chosen — Murphysboro Paving Brick Co. of Murphysboro, Illinois, which manufactured the ones stamped “EGYPTIAN” and the other, Wabash Clay Co. of Veedersburg, Indiana, which stamped their bricks “CULVER BLOCK.”
Nearly $1.2 million was budgeted for the mall’s construction, most of which was secured from a bond issue.
A few years later, computer expert Nick DeWolf and sculptor Travis Fulton added a major addition. Built in 1979, the Dancing Fountain on Mill Street is arguably the mall’s biggest attraction.
The mall has largely remained unchanged except for the maturation of landscaping and installation of minor features such as public artwork and additional benches for seating, according to the cultural resources survey.
However, in 2002 the Mill Street section of the mall along Wagner Park got an upgrade. The 1976-built restroom building and playground were replaced with upgraded facilities.
Two walls of the building were added to pay homage to Aspen’s history, as well as a clock tower and a ground circle called the Sister Cities Plaza.
ASPEN PEDESTRIAN MALL 2.0
So does this mean we’re headed for a shutdown of the downtown core during the mall’s facelift?
No, although it will likely have a years-long impact. If council were to follow Design Workshop’s conceptual design, construction would be done in phases, over the course of years.
Under the conceptual design, trees now reaching their maturity would be replaced, and the connections to Wagner Park and Durant Street from the Mill Street Mall would be improved.
The bathrooms in front of the park would move to the south and a new playground relocated to the north end.
An extension of the brick walkway next to Rubey Park and across Durant would help with connectivity from the mall, according to planners.
At Galena and Hyman, where the Ki Davis Fountain is, the mall would extend 5 feet longer into the street to create more space for pedestrians, according to the conceptual plan.
Mayor Torre, who lives less than a block from the Hyman Avenue Mall, acknowledged that the work will impact businesses and downtown life, and it’s the city’s job to minimize it as much as it can.
“The overall experience of the downtown is something we have to keep in mind,” he said.