Aspen asking voters to reel in Bass Park |

Aspen asking voters to reel in Bass Park

John Colson

Aspen voters will get to decide in May whether they want to buy 18,000 square feet of downtown park space for $3.44 million, or pass on the purchase and probably allow the space to be turned into luxury housing.

At least that is the deal the city laid out on Monday, when Aspen Mayor John Bennett announced a plan to buy the park and possibly use half of the parcel for affordable housing.

The city has signed a contract with the Bass family of Texas to buy Bass Park, located at the intersection of Monarch and Hopkins at the edge of the commercial core area, but only if the voters approve a funding proposal in May. City officials plan to spend the coming two months figuring out exactly what might be the most acceptable method of paying for the park as far as the voters are concerned, and then put that plan on the ballot.

That would mean two such questions will be posed to city voters on the municipal ballot. The other is to ask voter permission to issue about $14 million in bonds to pay for an ambitious array of parks and recreation projects, including a recreation center at Iselin Park.

Bass Park has been leased by the city since 1982. The price was payment of the roughly $6,000 annual tax bill on the land for most of that time, until the county assessor ruled the land to be a public facility and tax exempt. It was in 1982 that the city first approached the wealthy Bass family about buying the park, but the offer was rebuffed that year and every year since then, according to city officials.

Former Mayor Bill Stirling, who was involved in numerous negotiations with the family, said the city estimated at one point in the mid-1980s that the park was valued at about $650,000.

But last year, family patriarch Harry Bass died, and the family put the park on the market for $3.5 million. City officials believe the sale offer was mainly a move to determine the value of the land before offering it to the city.

“We wanted to do what we could to save it,” said Bennett Monday. But, he added, “We acknowledge that this is a very expensive piece of property, and we think it is appropriate that the voters make the decision.”

He said the City Council debated the wisdom of committing so much money to a relatively small piece of land, but noted that the preservation of Bass Park has been a stated city goal for years and is cited in the Aspen Area Community Plan. He said city officials were told the Bass family had “at least five full-price offers” from interested developers, who likely would have built luxury housing on the land.

City officials negotiated a sale contract that will not be effective until 60 days after election day in May, in case the voters decide not to authorize the purchase.

At City Hall on Monday, Bennett and City Councilwoman Rachel Richards explained that the current thinking is to issue bonds to pay half of the purchase price and repay the bonds using a dedicated sales tax.

The other half of the purchase price, they said, could be paid from the city’s affordable housing/day-care fund, in anticipation of using half of the park for an affordable housing project. Under this plan, the housing would be built on the western half of the park property, next to the Hotel Lenado.

“This would be an opportunity to continue to build affordable housing in the downtown core,” Richards said. The ballot results will indicate exactly how the voters feel about such matters as the preservation of open space and the allowance of increasingly high-density growth in the center of town, she said.

Bennett said the decision to be made is whether to issue bonds for a short period, such as three years, with high monthly payments and a relatively high sales tax, but a low overall interest payment, or stretch the repayment out over 10 or 20 years to lower the monthly payments and the sales tax rate, but significantly increase the overall amount of interest paid by taxpayers.

Richards noted that voters also will be asked in May to renew the city’s decade-old housing/day-care sales tax, a 1-cent tax that has fueled the local affordable housing program.

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