Aspen’s changing landscape: Building projects continue to shape downtown’s future
Downtown’s building environment has been changing for years, and will continue to as seven buildings will be altered or demolished in the next 12 months
A significant piece of architectural history was demolished earlier this month in downtown Aspen, marking the end of a post-World War II, mid-20th century modernism designed building.
The late architect Fritz Benedict, who was behind more than 200 projects in the Aspen area, designed the three-story Bidwell-Mountain Plaza Building located on the Cooper Avenue Mall.
It will be replaced with a two-story building suited for retail and a possible restaurant in the upstairs atrium. Developer Mark Hunt purchased the building in 2012 for $22 million.
Built in 1965, Benedict utilized a western, mountain style of architecture, using rustic elements of the area, including timber, bricks and stone. Also characteristic of Benedict is the covered walkway along Galena Street.
It was thought to be Benedict’s only known intact commercial building, according to a consultant study.
City officials in 2006 contemplated historically landmarking the structure, but it was early in the local conversation about preserving what’s called Aspen’s modern architecture, according to Amy Simon, the city’s historic preservation officer and planning director.
Bidwell replaced a late 1800s two-story commercial building last occupied by Tomkins Hardware. In 1962, it was sold to Aspen businessman Bert Bidwell who occupied much of the redeveloped building with his Mountain Shop sporting goods store.
There have been dozens of tenants since, including longtime retailer Kemosabe, the Grog Shop liquor store, real estate and doctor offices, as well as watering holes including the Flying Dog Brew Pub in the 1990s and most recently, Ryno’s Pints and Pies.
Jeannine Bidwell, who owned the building with her brother after their father died, had attempted to redevelop the property but could not get approval, so they eventually sold to Hunt.
She was unaware last week that the building had come down.
“It’s the end of an era and my last minute of fame,” Bidwell said. “Mark Hunt was a very nice person and I wish him well.”
Work on the building is on hold through Jan. 3 to adhere to the city’s holiday construction rules.
When construction resumes, Hunt estimated that it will take 16 months to complete. He described the new building as a “good blend between modern and traditional.”
The construction site is in the heart of downtown Aspen, and city officials recently recognized the impacts of it on surrounding businesses and on tourism.
“Staff continues to operate with (Aspen City) Council’s direction in mind that it is better to complete major development projects during the COVID-19 pandemic and while tourist visitation is lower than in typical years,” wrote Community Development Director Phillip Supino in a memo to council earlier this month. “In this instance, staff was presented with two options — pause the commencement of deconstruction and push project completion further into 2021 or beyond, or begin during the holiday season and ensure a shorter project timeline.”
Hunt and investors own several buildings in Aspen. He has two other construction projects currently happening downtown, and three more are on the way.
The redevelopment of more of his buildings, many of which are four decades old or older, will come later. And when those are complete, they will contribute to a new landscape in downtown Aspen.
Hunt said last week that each project is unique, and he is utilizing different architects for the buildings.
“(The city) encourages modern here and we fight for more traditional,” he said. “If we do all modern that could be dangerous, so we look at it holistically.”
All but one of Hunt’s projects in the queue was reviewed and approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which follows fairly robust guidelines to honor past architecture and accommodate new development, according to Simon.
“We have a better understanding now of 20th century architecture and better guidelines to protect existing patterns and characteristics of post-war modern architecture,” she said of the municipal government’s approach to historic preservation since the discussion around landmarking the Bidwell building in 2006. “Now, new development is held to different standards and priorities.”
Simon added that the downtown landscape has been changing for several years, and the end result is a mix of old and new.
She said one of her favorite parts of town that signifies that is on Hyman Avenue from Galena to Spring streets. It has historic buildings, ones that pay homage to previous architects like Tom Benton, and then ones that are ultra modern like the Aspen Art Museum.
Simon noted that roughly 15% of all properties within city limits are historically landmarked, and about 50% of the buildings in the commercial core are deemed historic.
Based on what she has seen, Simon said what Hunt has put forward thus far in the portfolio will create a desirable landscape.
“I think he has shown a lot of commitment to good architecture,” she said. “He knows his responsibility here.”
Besides the Bidwell building, Hunt is redeveloping the former Crystal Palace, located at 300 E. Hyman Ave., into a boutique hotel.
The site has been under construction since 2019 and will be complete in roughly 16 months, according to Hunt.
That will likely be the longest project under construction because of its detail in the building, which includes a rooftop pool.
The first project to come online since Hunt developed the old Gap building at 204 S. Galena St. is 232 E. Main St., the former Conoco gas station.
“That will be done in March,” he said of what will be a modern chalet-style building using metal, glass and wood. It will house Chase Bank.
“It’s going to be the best looking bank ever,” he said.
Hunt had proposed a small lodge on the property, but a citizen referendum on the ballot shot it down.
In the next three to six months, Hunt plans to knock down three more buildings in the downtown area.
The first is the structure located at 730 E. Cooper Ave. It will be redeveloped into Base 1, a small-room lodge that was originally going to be the sister property to Base 2 where the bank is being built.
The second project is at 517 E. Hopkins Ave., which will house shared workspace, retail and a possible restaurant.
The third project Hunt and his development team will take on in the coming months is a refurbishment and remodel of Main Street Bakery at 201 E. Main St. He plans to turn it into a diner that is open in the morning, day and at night.
After those projects get going, Hunt, in partnership with Jazz Aspen Snowmass, will start on creating a venue next to the buildings on either side of the Red Onion.
He said he’s excited to get the projects done and the buildings filled with tenants, and show the community that change is not a bad thing.
“There’s a lot of concern that it’s going to ruin the town and the landscape,” Hunt said, “but what you are getting is not bigger, and from an architectural standpoint, it is equal or better.”
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Pitkin County is now accepting applications for the new Aspen/Pitkin Airport advisory board, which will create a formalized structure for residents to get involved and provide advice on future needs for the airport