Aspen officials supportive of Centennial redevelopment, with caveats
Aspen City Council express concern over proposal that replaces 148 affordable units and adds 59 free-market condos in east end neighborhood
While Aspen City Council on Tuesday voiced support for a private developer to demolish 148 affordable housing units at the Centennial rental complex and replace them with deed-restricted apartments in perpetuity in exchange for building up to 59 free-market condos on the 10.5-acre parcel, elected officials fired off a litany of concerns that need to be addressed before the proposal will gain traction in the community.
First and foremost is where the roughly 255 people who currently reside there are going to live in the interim, which is the No. 1 concern for council members.
“The relocation, the transition, the actual moving expense for people, these sort of things are top of mind for me and that has to be well dealt with,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said.
Jeff Solomon, project manager and owner’s representative for Birge & Held, a national apartment owner, management and development firm that bought the Centennial rental complex in 2020 for nearly $51 million, said he is working with the city and other developers to potentially partner with and find a solution to the displacement of current residents.
“We are staying in close touch with the residents and neighbors so we can maintain a firm grasp of real life impacts that a project of this scope would have on the Aspen community,” he said, adding there is a potential to phase the project to lessen the impact on people having to move all at once.
Council and members of the city’s planning and zoning commission met Tuesday with Birge & Held representatives in what is called a sketch plan review process that’s designed for both parties to determine if enough shared interest exists in pursuing a redevelopment of the property.
The process initiates a conversation without the parameters of a traditional land use application and allows for a non-binding conversation so the ownership team gets a sense of what officials think of their proposal, according to Ben Anderson, the city’s principal long-range planner.
Council members said they are willing to enter a public-private partnership with Birge & Held if certain parameters can be met.
Council and planning and zoning members expressed concerns about density in an already crowded east end neighborhood with its own existing traffic issues, as well as contributing to the construction and demolition waste at the county landfill; a lack of parking in the proposed development; and not enough mitigation for growth.
It’s the intent of the developer to offset its affordable housing mitigation requirements for the free-market component of the project by offering the deed-restricted units in perpetuity.
Richards and other council members expressed concern that the free-market apartments would become short-term rentals, which have become a burden on the community.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing all free markets turn into short-term rentals and become a lodge by default that’s not paying property taxes of a commercial property,” Richards said.
New Centennial, LLC, managed by Birge and Held, is the development company proposing a denser parcel, so instead of less than 15 units per acre it would be 21 units per acre.
New to the property are free-market rental apartments that would serve as the economic driver for the project.
The entire property will eventually become free-market, based on approvals and conditions placed on it from Pitkin County commissioners in the 1980s.
Deed restrictions on the apartments expire at the end of the 21st year after the death of the last member of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, who approved the development. That individual is Old Snowmass resident Michael Kinsley who is in his 70s.
The city of Aspen in 2019 was set to buy the deed restrictions for $10 million but the deal fell through because the previous owner and the city could not agree to terms.
There are currently 41 studios; 48 one-bedrooms; 45 two-bedroom units; and 14 three-bedroom units at Centennial.
The existing complex is a total of 104,636 square feet with an average unit size of 707 square feet.
In broad terms, the existing unit mix would be replaced in a similar fashion, although the average unit size would increase from 707 square feet to approximately 830 square feet per unit, according to Anderson.
The 59 free-market units are planned to be 1,725 square feet each and would be predominantly three-bedroom units in buildings that are mostly three story, but some would reach four stories in certain places.
That’s an issue for some council members, including Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who won’t be able to weigh in during future quasi-judicial hearings because he lives within 300 feet of the project but was allowed to speak his mind in Tuesday’s informal meeting.
“It seems to me that in my experience in Aspen and the last four or so years plus at this table is that the fourth floor becomes a third rail,” he said. “I want the most workforce housing possible and the fewest free market units as possible.”
The project would provide 375 parking spaces for residents and guests of the 207 units. Currently there are 231 parking spaces, and most residents there say it’s not enough.
A handful of tenants at Centennial spoke on Tuesday, pleading with elected officials to protect their interests and the workforce who supports the resort community.
Eight-year Centennial resident Kat Schultz fought back tears when she addressed council.
“My unit is scheduled to be demolished and it’s a hard thing to have something you’ve worked so hard to achieve ripped out from under your feet and I understand development, I understand progress and all of that has its place,” she said. “Even if those apartments are replaced, the act of this mysterious displacement and how it will be handled and where we live could be enough to break people financially, emotionally that they can’t come back and what will that do to this town? Who is going to serve you your food and your wine, who’s going to sell you your Gucci, your Prada, who is going to run the chairlift when you want to ski? What are we doing to these people and how much do we value their presence in our community?”
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