Aspen’s ‘town square’ spared
ASPEN ” A proposal to knock down a building in the heart of downtown Aspen and redevelop it was shot down Tuesday by elected leaders who said the project was too large and out of character with the historic area.
The Aspen City Council voted 4-1 to deny Mark Bidwell, owner of the Mountain Plaza Building ” located at the corner of Cooper Avenue Mall and Galena Street ” the right to redevelop the property into commercial and residential uses.
The request of council was to subdivide the property so it could be sold in separate interests.
With the exception of Councilman Dwayne Romero, who was the lone dissenter in the denial, council members agreed with members of the public who spoke against the project, arguing its height, density and mass is too much for the popular downtown space.
The mixed-use building would have housed commercial and office space on the street level, with additional space on the second level along with three affordable-housing units. The third level would have been three free-market condos of 2,000 square feet each.
At its highest point, the building would have been about 14 feet higher than what currently is there ” from the existing 27 feet to 41 feet. Although John Rowland, the architect who designed the project, pointed out most of the building was to be 39 feet tall, which is consistent with other buildings along the Cooper Avenue mall.
But for Councilman Steve Skadron, the jump in height by 30 percent and an increase in additional square footage from 11,800 to 23,000 makes the building too large for the area, which would be forever changed as a result of the development. He added it would have had a negative effect on historic buildings in the area.
Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss agreed.
“The application simply overwhelms everything around it,” he said. “It’s massive.”
The area is considered one of downtown’s most vital public spaces, with many calling it Aspen’s town square. The building is located across from the Paradise Bakery corner and near the public information booth on the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall.
Skadron said the proposed building was too imposing a structure to be located next to public gathering spots.
Councilman Jack Johnson said the proposed building would erode the area by crowding public space, and would also set a negative precedent for redevelopment in the future.
“It’s hard not to think that a building this size will not negatively affect future development there,” he said.
Subdivision approval falls under the criteria of the Aspen Area Community Plan (AACP), which is often referred to as Aspen’s constitution when it comes to development and preserving a neighborhood’s character.
While he said he empathizes with neighbors in the area and residents who opposed the project, Romero said he thought that the project met the standards set by the AACP because it offered affordable housing that doesn’t currently exist, as well revitalized retail opportunities in an aging building. He also said he didn’t think the proposed building would impede the pedestrian experience in the area.
The building, which houses notable tenants such as Kemosabe and Noori’s Collection, would have been rebuilt as a solid structure to the lot line, which is on the pedestrian mall. Currently, there is open subgrade area that looks down into Noori’s Collection, located in the basement. That undeveloped portion creates a feeling of an open plaza area, critics of the proposal said.
“I look at this and think it’s one place more I can’t go,” said Phyllis Bronson of the proposal. “You’ve designed a beautiful building, but it doesn’t belong there.”
Bronson was one of dozens of people who opposed the project either during public comment at the council’s meeting or via e-mail to their elected leaders.
Some critics said the proposed building was “too boxy.”
Mitch Haas, the project’s planning consultant, said he and his team have met the standards set by city government in terms of land use and the community’s goals. He added that the project had received support from city planners, the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).
Bidwell already has approval for demolition, which was granted by the HPC and a previous Aspen City Council. Both bodies also reviewed the building for historic designation, and it was determined there was no historical significance.
The proposal has been in the review process for 2 1/2 years and has been subject to more than a dozen public meetings.
Bidwell’s attorney, Jody Edwards, reminded the council that the project team has complied with the land-use code through the entire process. He argued that the council should be considering the subdivision application only and not on the merits of land use.
That’s the argument being used in two lawsuits against the city government filed by separate developers who have had their subdivision applications denied in recent months. Those include the redevelopment of the Wienerstube building on Spring Street and the Cooper Street Pier, located on Cooper Avenue.
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