Aspen building owner willing to accept historic designation for incentives
December 7, 2009
ASPEN – A downtown building designed by a local artist could become the first commercial property to be historically designated voluntarily by its owner.
Located at 630 E. Hyman Ave., the 12,000-square-foot property was sold by Jack and Gesine Crandall earlier this year to Greg and Jane Hills for $4.8 million.
The Hills are seeking historical designation of the 40-year-old building, designed by the late Tom Benton.
The Hills plan to build a 2,500-square-foot free-market condo on the top floor, remodel the structure, and parcel out the rest of the building so its occupants – about 11 businesses – can buy their spaces at affordable prices.
In exchange for the historical designation, which would prevent the building from being demolished or altered, the Hills want an exemption to allow the condo at the proposed size and waive about $31,000 in development fees.
The Aspen City Council will review the proposal tonight. It’s expected to decide whether the Hills should be granted the requested incentives in exchange for historical designation.
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The process is part of Ordinance 48, which was passed by the council in late 2007. It was meant to be a temporary fix to Ordinance 30, which prevented the demolition or alteration of any building more than 30 years old without a governmental review to determine its historic significance.
Ordinance 48 allows a property owner who has been identified by the city as having a potentially historic building to either agree or volunteer for historic designation, or pass on it and accept a 90-day delay period to process the permit to alter or demolish the building.
“It’s our first Ordinance 48 property to get to the finish line on designation,” said Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer. “It’s unusual that we have this opportunity.”
Free-market units in mixed-use buildings are capped at 2,000 square feet and property owners can exceed that size by 500 square feet by purchasing a transferable development right (TDR).
The Hills are asking that the condo be allowed at 2,500 square feet without a TDR, partly because common areas in the building contribute to the residence’s size.
“The structure isn’t that big but it’s the calculation,” Greg Hills said, adding the condo would be pushed back from the street. “We’ve worked pretty hard to make it look good … we’ve tried to make it blend in.”
The condo would result in the interior courtyard becoming enclosed. However, public access would remain, and be enhanced by having a seating area and Benton’s artwork on display. That area is where Benton’s signature circle is prominent in the form of a round window.
If the council is not supportive of an increase in residential, the Hills would have to reduce the common atrium area, which is arguably an amenity to tenants and users. They also could make the condo smaller or provide a 2,692-square-foot affordable housing unit on site.
Guthrie noted in a memo to the council that all of those options affect the viability of the project.
The Hills are asking the city to grant permanent easements on two features of the building that encroach on the public right of way along Spring Street. The other option is that the council vacate the right of way.
If the fees are waived, it would have a financial impact to the city since services would be provided without payment. The council would have to identify a funding source to cover the costs, such as cash reserves, Guthrie wrote in the memo.
Hills said he chose historical designation because he and his wife’s real estate development firm is committed to “restoring buildings and bringing them back to life.”
The company, Austin Lawrence Partners, recently restored three 1890s historic mining cabins known as the Conner Cabins on Hopkins Avenue and converted them into commercial office spaces.
The Hills’ intention is to refurbish the Crandall building, replace the mechanical and electrical systems, as well as the windows and reconfigure the primary staircase. An outdoor area with seating also would be added.
Hills said if a residential unit wasn’t allowed to be built, it wouldn’t be economically viable to keep the building intact.
“If we didn’t have that, we would have to substantially change the building,” he said, adding that with historical designation, the community benefits by having a notable structure and as a developer, there is economic incentive because a free-market unit would be added.
The Hills intend to keep as many tenants in the building as possible. Typically, when a building is remodeled, tenants are pushed out because of escalated rents.
But the Hills’ financial plan calls for individual areas to be purchased by the businesses at below market rates, which also would allow them to control their destinies by owning their own spaces.
“The vast majority are excited to control their futures,” Hills said, adding many tenants have been in the building for 20 to 25 years. Businesses include Sandy’s Office Supply, a barbershop and a pediatricians’ office.
There is about 11,000 square feet of leasable space in the building. Existing tenants will be approached first and if they decline to buy their spaces, the Hills will search for other potential renters.
Benton played an influential role in Aspen’s 20th Century modernism architecture movement, which occurred between 1945 and 1975. The Crandall building illustrates design philosophies that were central to Benton’s approach – simple geometric shapes, squares juxtaposed with circles, natural materials and classic form.
Benton’s most recognized work is the 1970 “Hunter Thompson for Sheriff” campaign poster, which included a two-thumbed fist and peyote button. That work inspired the famous “Gonzo Fist” logo that Benton designed with fellow artist Paul Pascarella.
In 1963, Benton designed and built a building at 521 E. Hyman Ave. that became his home, art studio and gallery.
Benton became involved in local politics and his gallery became a central meeting place for intellectuals, artists and activists. He shifted his focus from architecture to graphic art and design in the mid 1960s, creating political posters for the Aspen Liberation Front, a loose-knit group of activists.
“The more I read about him, the more I’ve enjoyed learning about him,” Hills said, adding he hopes to keep Benton’s mark alive on Hyman Avenue.