Aspen council session dominated by comments on buildings
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – Opinions were not in short supply Monday night during an Aspen City Council public hearing on the controversial development proposal involving the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings on East Hyman Avenue and the potential construction of a three-story building on a nearby empty lot.
Late in the evening, council members were headed toward a motion to approve the concept behind the application by owner-developer Aspen Core Ventures LLC, with some design details to be worked out later.
The talks started in earnest around 7:30 p.m. after the council’s dinner break, but had even seeped into the public comment period just after the meeting’s 5 p.m. start and conversations about other ordinances.
The company is seeking concessions from the city on plans for the new mixed-use building in exchange for preserving the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings, which the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission designated as historically significant in December after saying earlier that the Little Annie’s building could be demolished. An initial plan last fall sought the demolition of both structures, sparking a public outcry.
Many residents and part-time residents expressed dismay over the sheer size of the third building, which would rise to 41 feet above street level, which meets current land-use guidelines, and would include two free-market residential units as well as retail and office space. Others said the city needed to adjust its land-use code to prevent the approval of such large development concepts and said it was a shame that the city was negotiating with the owner-developer amid the threat of a lawsuit.
Lindsay Smith said the process reeked of a game.
“It’s a game between the developers and the citizens of this town,” she said. “There’s a pattern of post-approval changes to projects that result in surprising and unexpected additions to buildings.”
She used a football analogy to make a point about the ability of citizens to protect the city from unattractive building proposals.
“We have a hole in our defense,” Smith said. “Our developers, our planners and architects know what the holes in our defense are and they use them to walk right through all of the meetings, all of your ordinances, and this really bothers me. … Our defense, unless it’s citizens, doesn’t ever show up until the second half of the game.”
Like others, she said the council shouldn’t be afraid of fighting the developer in court. But Councilman Adam Frisch disagreed, saying, “I think we need to control our own destiny here” by working out a solution that avoids litigation.
Some council members agreed with residents who were concerned about the building’s size and appearance as shown through artist’s renderings. At one point during the meeting, after planner Stan Clauson and architect John Toya showed a 3-D model that examined the building’s relationship to its surroundings from several different angles, Councilman Steve Skadron said, “My first comment is it looks monstrous.” Mayor Mick Ireland added, “Try humongous.”
Earlier, Nikos Hecht, managing partner of Aspen Core Ventures, spoke of his company’s efforts to preserve the Little Annie’s Building, restore the Benton Building and create a new building that blends in with the surrounding area.
“When we heard council and the community really wanted to keep Annie’s and Benton, it personally struck a chord with me, because as a 41-year local, I remember eating at Annie’s when there were horses tied out front,” Hecht said. “So, I thought if the community cared that much it was worth me caring that much.”
His group’s original plans involved demolishing the two existing buildings. Now, through a negotiation with the city under the AspenModern program, the plans have been revised, but Aspen Core Ventures wants various concessions. He said the initial plans would have been much more financially lucrative.
“We really put profit not in last place, but definitely second place, or tied with first place, with this effort to preserve and restore and now make a perpetual low-priced eatery for this community,” Hecht said. He was referring to his group’s plan to make the Little Annie’s property deed-restricted so that it will be leased only to an affordable eatery such as the current restaurant the building houses.
The developer 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 by city Community Development Department staff. The math involved in the reduction led Ireland to voice a few concerns at a Feb. 6 meeting.
Following recent negotiations with two council members and city staff, 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.
The developer previously 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: one at 6,950 square feet and another unit on the second floor at 2,000 square feet.
Commercial real estate broker Ruth Kruger was one of many who argued against the proposal. She said it didn’t make sense for the city to suffer a net loss of 30 crucial downtown parking spaces with the loss of the empty lot at the corner of East Hyman Avenue and South Hunter Street for the sake of preserving the two buildings.
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