Aspen government grapples with the basement to nowhere
Aspen city leaders Tuesday addressed an issue that has been festering for several years: what to do about a vacant sub-ground space on Cooper Avenue.
Use of the basement space, located at 508 E. Cooper Ave., was part of a lawsuit settlement in 2008 between the city and the owners of the property, Cooper Street Development LLC, which is controlled by such Aspen investors as Andrew Hecht, his son, Nikos Hecht, Ron Garfield and Joshua Saslove.
The LLC sued the City Council after it rejected a redevelopment proposal for the old Cooper Street Pier building, once home to the two-story dive tavern and the popular Lucci’s Italian restaurant in the subground space. Other tenants, such as Bad Billy’s on the first two floors and a basement-level Thai restaurant, later occupied the building.
But a lawsuit settlement allowed for the property to be redeveloped into a four-story building that currently includes an eight-figure penthouse and a Bruno Cucinelli retailer.
The settlement also put restrictions on the basement space: It would house either a restaurant, bar or brewery that would command below free-market rent.
The 2,430-square-foot space, however, remains empty because the building’s owner haven’t found a tenant. The lawsuit settlement also said the city could seek a tenant if the landlord didn’t after six months. But nothing has happened. The space needs finish work to be done, potentially ranging from $150 to $600 per square foot, which is driving potential tenants away, officials said during Tuesday’s discussion.
“It seemed like a good theory at the time,” said Jim True, city attorney. “But looking back, it just hasn’t worked.”
Councilman Adam Frisch questioned why the restrictions remain in place.
“I would rather see the place filled up with a locally serving restaurant, but I don’t feel it’s going to be a restaurant,” he said. “I’m willing to give up and say I don’t see a restaurant going there. … I think the community is losing by having a vacant space there for four years.”
True, however, cautioned that lifting the deed restriction means there’s no going back.
“We had this intention, and they got what they wanted, but we didn’t get what we wanted,” said Mayor Steve Skadron, referring to the building’s owners selling the penthouse space for $13.2 million in January 2015 and finding and an upscale retailer.
Councilman Bert Myrin agreed.
“I think it’s really important to not lift this restriction on the restaurant use,” he said.
Officials also discussed whether it should be the city’s responsibility to finish the space to make it more enticing to prospective tenants. Again, True cautioned council members about taking such a step.
It’s an expense that Cooper Street Development isn’t considering, said Assistant City Manager Barry Crook.
“Apparently the landlord is not interested in leasing the space out or they might contribute to the tenant finish,” he said.
True added, “The best we can tell is they did minimum efforts to find a tenant, and it was unsuccessful.”
Frisch said more research needs to be done to understand why the space is empty. He suggested having established restaurant operators look at the space and give feedback on what makes the space appealing or not.
“Before you solve a problem, you have to know what the problem is,” he said. “No one knows what the problem is.”
The building’s owner was not represented at the work session.
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