Aspen council approves higher budget for Wheeler renovation
August 9, 2011
ASPEN – After gaining assurances that a newfound component of Wheeler Opera House renovations could not have been predicted during initial planning stages, the Aspen City Council on Monday raised the “overall budget authority” for the project by $665,000.
The increase, which passed 4-0, puts the total project cost at $2.89 million, 30 percent above the $2.23 million previously budgeted for the work. Councilman Adam Frisch was absent and unable to vote.
Project Manager Steve Bossart told council members that the extra work relates to problems that weren’t discovered until ACI was working on the project’s first phase: the “demolition” of the Wheeler’s basement, restaurant and retail area. Those areas were not exactly demolished; to use Bossart’s term, they were “deconstructed” – meaning that nearly everything was taken out and stripped bare in order to make way for new restaurant equipment, flooring, mechanical and electrical systems, plumbing, ceilings, walls and the like.
Of the $665,000 that the city’s Capital Asset Department says is necessary to complete the project, $322,526 would be budgeted for Aspen Constructors Inc., the general contractor. Overall, ACI would receive an estimated $2.3 million for its part in the initiative, which is taking place in three phases. The city is pushing for completion before the start of the 2011-12 ski season in December.
The main culprit making the budget increase necessary, Bossart said, is the outdated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system serving the entire building except for the theater auditorium.
Asset Department staff sought advice from the project’s team of experts, including city staff, private architects and ACI managers. The team determined that the HVAC system was past its useful life and should be replaced.
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Also, the reconfiguration of the restaurant kitchen “requires a pathway for the ventilation system that necessitates removal of the existing HVAC system,” Bossart wrote in a recent memorandum to the council.
“It’s the smart thing to do,” Bossart said Monday. The experts have advised that although using existing system equipment might be less expensive, doing so might lead to costly repairs in the near future.
“To me this is a simple ‘gotcha’ on a building that’s over a million years old,” Councilman Derek Johnson joked. “You get in there, and you find things.” The Wheeler is actually a little more than 120 years old, and the systems and equipment in question are part of the city’s early 1980s renovations.
Mayor Mick Ireland’s line of questioning centered on whether the team was able to analyze the situation comprehensively enough after the demolition work to ensure that the council won’t be asked to approve another major increase. He also sought answers on whether all systems and needs for the Wheeler space had been accounted for.
“Am I absolutely sure … that somebody’s not going to come back and say to us, ‘Gee, you need to do something in this [other area], but you just walled yourself off from what you need to do’? Now, can I be sure of that, and how can I be sure?” Ireland asked.
Bossart said he’s been told that maintenance workers will have easy access to the replacement heating and mechanical systems, given the plans for the extra project component.
An ACI representative said team engineers have gotten good looks at the basement and restaurant-retail areas over the past month and have determined precisely what’s necessary.
Bossart added that by exchanging old systems for more energy-efficient equipment, the city could be eligible for grants in the quasi-governmental Community Office for Research Efficiency’s 2012 funding cycle.
Other aspects of the project came up during the discussion: Councilman Torre said that the reconfigured retail space, which Valley Fine Art is leasing, seems too small. He asked whether 100 square feet could be added to the shop, but was told that the owner is satisfied with the amount of space she’ll get under the current arrangement with the city.
Bentley’s occupied the Wheeler’s restaurant space for 27 years until early June, when the owner shut down his operation a few weeks earlier than planned. Bentley’s departure allowed the city and ACI to begin the basement and restaurant-retail demolition work sooner.
In late March, the council voted to award a new lease for the restaurant space to a group called Fiercely Local LLC, whose owners currently operate the Cheese Shop/Specialty Foods of Aspen on East Hopkins Avenue.
Michele Kiley, who will handle operations for Fiercely Local and also is a partner in the new company, told councilmembers that she’s tentatively looking at an opening date around Thanksgiving. But first, the city must finish its portion of the renovations before turning over a “vanilla box” – as one city official described it – to the restaurant for interior design work.
Bossart said he would submit a revised timetable to the council sometime soon, but pointed out that as of now, the project is on schedule.