Aspen City Council moves forward with $48M Rio Grande office building plan despite opposition
Aspen City Council on Tuesday spent more than three hours going backward and forward on current plans to construct a municipal office building at Rio Grande Place.
The general direction from council is to stay the course on a previous council’s and voters’ approval to build a 37,500-square-foot building that is three stories, 47 feet tall and sandwiched between Rio Grande Place and Galena Plaza.
Council members, three of whom are newly elected and took office less than a month ago, agreed to listen to critics of the plan who have offered other ideas what the building should look like, how big it should be, what should go in it and how the open space around it should interact with the public.
They want the city to engage in a public design process so the building better connects the popular John Denver Sanctuary, the Roaring Fork River and Rio Grande Park to town and Aspen Mountain.
And many of those critics do not believe that a walled-off office building from the park will do that.
But significantly changing the building would require amendments to an ordinance approved by council in 2017 and validated by voters last fall.
So the citizens group, including former Mayor Bill Stirling and local architect Harry Teague, have been working with the city’s parks and open space team to focus on Galena Plaza and how that can better connect town to the river.
“Galena Plaza has never realized its full potential,” Stirling said, adding that better trails, entertainment areas and possible food vendors will activate the space.
Other citizens suggested that the third floor, which is planned at between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet for mostly meeting space, be eliminated because that type of use is not needed.
“We don’t have to build a building that is taller than we need,” said Peter Grenney, who is opposed to the project as approved. “We think there’s a real opportunity to stick with our community values” of low building heights and small-town character, he said. “We think open space is a better use.”
Councilman Skippy Mesirow said he doesn’t agree with the building’s programming thus far, especially more meeting space, but does not support lopping off the third floor.
“I very much question this need,” he said of additional meeting space.
Mayor Torre said he questions why after years of planning that programming for the building and other city facilities is still an unknown.
“We are still talking about where the pieces might fall,” he said.
City capital asset director Jeff Pendarvis and Jack Wheeler, the city’s owner’s representative who is contracted on the project, said they are following a previous council’s direction.
Councilwomen Rachel Richards said people need to remember that this building is being planned for future government and population growth.
“I do not question the need about the third floor,” she said, adding that a lot of the course has been set by previous councils. “We are not building a building for 2006. We are not building a building for 2019. We are building a building for 2050.”
Council members generally agreed that they want that third floor to better interface with Galena Plaza, potentially with doors or windows that open to the green space.
Pendarvis pointed out early in the meeting that the planned third floor is lower in height than the adjacent library meeting room and the existing Rio Grande building on the other side of Galena Plaza.
Richards said voters last fall made a clear statement to council to move forward with the building.
“For what’s in front of us I think it’s good,” she said.
Torre said he is concerned about costs escalating with the project as staff continue to address potential changes. He also said he wants to continue a conversation about programming in the building.
With a renovation of the existing Rio Grande building and the current City Hall in the armory building, as well as the new office building, the whole package is estimated to cost between $46 million and $49 million.
Financed through certificates of participation, the payback will be over $60 million.
The renovations and additional office space are designed to provide adequate space for city employees to work and centralized locations for the public.
Currently, municipal employees are working in cramped office space in City Hall, or are spread throughout town in rented buildings that cost the local government more than $500,000 a year.
Excavation for the new building will occur this summer, with vertical construction scheduled to begin at the end of the year.
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”