Aspen council, Mark Hunt deadlocked over rezone
The ownership group of two Aspen buildings home to 21 businesses is regrouping after the City Council denied its request earlier this week to rezone the property.
Mark Hunt, the public face of investors behind multiple commercial properties in the downtown redevelopment hopper, also wants to make over the neighboring buildings at 465 and 557 N. Mill St., in the area by the post office and across the street from the Clark’s Market shopping center. The two buildings are known as the Mill Street Commercial Center.
“I love this property,” Hunt told the City Council. “I think this property has a ton of opportunity. I think there could be something there that could be really exciting, super cool, not only visually and architecturally, but with the uses.”
But the City Council’s four members at Monday’s meeting — Bert Myrin was absent — unanimously voted to reject the proposed rezoning of the property to mixed-use, which would allow office, commercial, residential, service, civic and public uses.
The council’s decision followed the cue of the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission, which Feb. 19 voted 5-1 in recommending denial of the project. The city’s Community Development Department also recommended denial, citing, among other things, the would-be mixed-use zone buildings wouldn’t be compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods and existing tenants would likely be displaced.
The Mill Street Commercial Center currently is zoned service-commercial-industrial, or SCI. The SCI zoning designation is intended for locally serving businesses that can’t afford the rents the downtown core demands. The two Mill Street buildings’ tenants include Aspen’s sole coin-operated laundromat, an auto-service shop, a packaging store, a sporting goods consignment store and other enterprises.
Hunt’s group, North Mill Street LLC, bought the two buildings from a group of owners including father-and-son Andy and Nikos Hecht for $15 million in June 2018. The new owners also inherited the former owners’ application to rezone the property.
But the City Council’s adoption of Ordinance 29 in January 2017 — one of six new ordinances that were part of an overhaul of the city’s land-use code — forbids residential development on the two properties in question. That prompted the Hecht team to sue the city in February 2017 in Pitkin County District Court, saying the ordinance unfairly targeted the Mill Street Commercial Center by not allowing residential development there.
The city had not been served with that suit nor the one Hunt’s North Mill Street LLC filed in January in federal court making the same allegations until Monday, before the City Council rejected the zoning change.
Attorney Chris Bryan of Garfield & Hecht PC, the Aspen firm that is litigating the matter, said Wednesday it was merely a coincidence that the city was served the same day the council made the decision, which came near the end of its meeting Monday night.
“The last thing we want to do is drag out a legal fight with the city,” Bryan said, noting the city has 60 days to respond to the federal court suit, but added that the Hunt team is willing to give it more time while negotiations continue.
With a three new officeholders set to be sworn in June 10 — Mayor-elect Torre and council members Skippy Mesirow and Rachel Richards — Bryan said “we can have communications with them about the property in general and in the context of the litigation.
“We just think it’s fair for the new City Council to be installed and sworn in. This is a big decision and everybody agrees this is an important piece of property.”
The main building, which fronts Puppy Smith Street, sits on just over 1 acre of land and comprises 20,645 feet. The other building, 7,990 square feet, rests on 0.145 acre.
“We feel there are opportunities much greater than what you see with the status quo,” Chris Bendon, one of Hunt’s land-use planners, told the council. “This has led us to seek the rezoning.”
For now, however, the current City Council stands opposed.
“In the interest of supporting local businesses, at this point I cannot support rezoning,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who is nearing the midway point of his first four-year term.
Other council members agreed, as did resident Steve Humboldt, whose wife owns Millennium Pack & Ship, which is located in the 465 N. Mill building.
“I think the voice that’s getting lost here is the certain business that are there right now,” he told the council before it made its decision. “They would not survive a rezoning; they would not survive a rebuilding.”
Hunt, however, said change is inevitable at the Mill Street Commercial Center.
“This vote isn’t saving these businesses,” he said. “We could give (the businesses) notices and empty the building tomorrow; that’s not the point. Something will be done here, regardless of what the zoning is.”
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Three construction projects under Mark Hunt’s purview were red-tagged by the city Friday before the developer paid off one outstanding debt while two remained unsatisfied.