Aspen City Hall to remain a city hall
September 14, 2016
Meet the new City Hall. Same as the old City Hall.
In a 3-2 decision Tuesday, Aspen City Council favored history over millions of dollars in savings by directing its capital assets team to forge ahead with plans to remodel the existing City Hall and build 28,400 square feet of new space for civic offices on Rio Grande Place near the Pitkin County Library. The city also will use another 6,400 square feet of existing space on Rio Grande Place for future offices.
"The image of the city housed in a historic structure is the defining image of this town," said Mayor Steve Skadron, who held firm to his position offered last month to keep City Hall where it has been since the 1950s — in the 19th century Armory Hall building at the corner of East Hopkins Avenue and Galena Street.
The council's choice is now official, following a series of public meetings and civic master plan studies dating back to 2003.
The estimated cost of the project — called the Armory Reuse Option — ranges from $35.9 million to $38.6 million, $21 million of which would be paid with city cash and the rest through financing.
The other alternative, known as the Galena Option, had an estimated price tag of $31.3 million, while the city already had spent $990,000 on studies associated with the project.
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But Skadron and Councilmen Adam Frisch and Bert Myrin weren't comfortable with the less expensive option, featuring a civic campus that would include a 51,900-square-feet building at 425 and 455 Rio Grande Place.
Additionally, Frisch cast skepticism on the fiscal aspects of converting the existing City Hall into a community use center. In November, Aspen voters favored using City Hall for a community center instead of city offices. But the vote was not binding and the decision was narrow — 51.65 percent of the voting electorate chose a community center.
Aspen resident Bruce Etkin spearheaded the ballot question on the vow that he would spend $100,000 of his own money on a study examining the potential and feasibility of converting City Hall into a local headquarters for fundraisers, gatherings, 12-step meetings, concerts and other local-oriented events. He also said he could raise what he believed was $10 million in capital to remodel the building as a community center, while the Wheeler Opera House agreed to organize the events.
"If the Wheeler wants to expand, they should expand on their own space of dirt," Frisch said in reference to the plot of land next to the Wheeler that is a pubic park. The city also owns the City Hall building, so it would be on the hook with a defeated structure should the business model fail, he said. Frisch also said he was certain that the new City Hall would go to a public vote and would be roundly rejected.
Councilors Art Daily and Ann Mullins, however, had an opposite take from their counterparts.
A new City Hall would be more efficient in terms of customer service, energy use, staff production and other aspects, they said.
"In my view, the one roof is by far and away the most elegant and least expensive solution," Daily said. "It generates the strongest civic vitality and presence. It sends the strongest message about our community pride and all told, it simply represents the best interests of our town."
A stimulating work environment would translate to increased staff production because "when people enjoy working together, the sky is the limit."
Likewise, Mullins argued the Galena Option would translate to more savings for the city and an "optimal work environment," adding that the argument that living in Aspen makes up for substandard working conditions "is not true."
City officials have claimed that the existing 19,800-square-foot City Hall lacks the means to provide effective or efficient governance and customer service. Other city offices are scattered around town, while a security expert noted that the "confusing and fractured service increases risk of staff threat and incidents," according to a presentation made to City Council by the Capital Assets Department.
A memo from the department, which had previously endorsed the Galena Option, to City Council said it was retreating from that stance partly because of "public sentiment" against it.
Former Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said anecdotal evidence shouldn't be the gauge determining the public mood, but instead an independent assessment would better suffice.