Aspen council advances plan for Annie’s, Benton buildings
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council voted 4-1 on Monday to approve the introduction of an ordinance that aims to preserve the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings on East Hyman Avenue from future demolition while making development concessions to the owner of those properties.
Council members will continue their review of the proposed ordinance, which mirrors current development plans by Aspen Core Ventures LLC, at their next meeting on Feb. 13. A public hearing on the issue will be held at the same meeting.
Aspen Core Ventures, represented in negotiations with the city by managing partner Nikos Hecht, wants to renovate the Benton Building and build a new mixed-use, three-story structure on a nearby empty lot at the corner of East Hyman Avenue and South Hunter Street.
In exchange for restoring the Benton Building and not tearing down the Annie’s building next door – thereby preserving them under the city’s new AspenModern program – the owner-developer wants the city to approve plans that require less expensive mitigation for affordable housing and allow two free-market residential units, one small and one large, in the new mixed-use building that would be built on the corner.
Approval of an ordinance on first reading is not necessarily an indication that the council will support the ordinance when it comes up for final adoption. Typically, a proposal gets unanimous support at first reading as a simple courtesy to the applicant and to take the discussion to the next level.
But Mayor Mick Ireland, who expressed many concerns Monday about aspects of the process that has gotten the project to its current point, cast a vote against introducing the ordinance anyway.
Little Annie’s restaurant, which opened in 1972, and the building in which it is housed are considered local treasures by some Aspenites who cried foul last year when Aspen Core Ventures initially proposed to tear down the two buildings to make way for a new structure.
Ireland said the city has not fully explored the question of whether the Annie’s building is historically significant and therefore worthy of concessions the city might give the developer in exchange for preserving the buildings. In September, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission deemed that the Benton Building, built in 1963 by the late architect-artist Thomas W. Benton, had historical value and should be preserved. It did not give the same vote of confidence to the historical significance of the Annie’s building.
Ireland said he reviewed minutes of the Historic Preservation Commission meeting to get more of a feel for how commissioners arrived at their recommendations for the two buildings.
“Little Annie’s didn’t receive much consideration one way or the other,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion of the Benton Building.”
Ireland also questioned the formulas that the city’s Community Development Department staff used to determine the number of full-time jobs generated by the project. That figure will determine Aspen Core Ventures’ responsibility in the area of affordable-housing mitigation.
Hecht initially sought a waiver of affordable-housing-mitigation requirements for 29 full-time employees. Under a new proposal, the number of employees who would be housed by the development has been recalculated to nine.
Following negotiations over the past two weeks with Councilmen Torre and Adam Frisch, Aspen Core Ventures has agreed to provide one off-site residential unit to cover 1.75 full-time employees generated by the development and to pay a little more than $1 million as “cash in lieu” of providing other housing options for the equivalent of another 7.25 full-time employees generated by the project.
Hecht also had planned a single, 7,500-square-foot, free-market penthouse for the top of the new building. That proposal has changed, and he’s now seeking two units that would total 8,950 square feet of floor area: a penthouse at 6,950 square feet and another unit on the second floor at 2,000 square feet.
Ireland questioned the value of negotiations that led to an increase in free-market residential space.
Torre, however, defended his role in the talks that led to changes in the developer’s plans.
He said his concern has not been about saving the Little Annie’s eatery but about preserving the downtown streetscape. Little Annie’s is a privately owned restaurant operation that could close at the owner’s discretion even if the building is preserved.
“We created this negotiation process, and I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Nikos. He came to those meetings with an open mind,” Torre said. “And we’re not just dealing with him. He has partners. Constantly he had to check in, and I imagine the reaction he was getting from those guys on the other end of that phone couldn’t have been good.
“But he stuck with us and went through this because this is the process that we set up. Now we don’t like our process, or we think we should challenge it in some other way. I would like to negotiate instead of litigate.”
In response to a question about why a special meeting had to be called Monday to introduce the ordinance, city senior planner Sara Adams said the AspenModern negotiations have a 90-day window that expires at the end of this month. An extension can be granted if both parties agree to prolong the discussion.
Let’s make some skiing predictions. I made my X Games snowboarding predictions a day earlier and remain only mildly lukewarm in terms of confidence, but maybe I’ll feel better about the skiers.