Boards, residents take harsh view of Aspen Given project |

Boards, residents take harsh view of Aspen Given project

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – A proposal by an unidentified buyer to redevelop The Given Institute property was roundly criticized Tuesday during a joint meeting of the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

A majority of both boards – and more than a dozen community members who spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting – used terms like “offensive,” “insulting” and “excessive” to describe the plan, which involves subdividing the 2.25-acre property into four lots.

Three of the lots would be turned into residential properties for luxury homes. The fourth, containing the 12,000-square-foot Given building designed by modernist architect Harry Weese, would have a one-year option to allow time for it to be preserved as a community asset and protected with a historic designation. If the city does not purchase the building itself or find a nonprofit willing to buy it and preserve it within the year, it would revert back to the owner for residential development.

No action was taken on the proposal. Further discussion on the matter is set for 5 p.m. on Jan. 19 at City Hall.

The University of Colorado owns the property, and the potential buyer is SC Acquisitions LLC, which has a contract to purchase it for $15 million. The city, local commissions and representatives of SC Acquisitions, including Aspen attorney Bart Johnson, are negotiating under Ordinance 48, which requires “a discussion of preservation options before a significant property can be altered or demolished,” according to a memorandum by Amy Guthrie, city historic preservation officer.

But many in the City Hall meeting room on Tuesday felt that the starting point for negotiations heavily favored the would-be developer. The company is asking for several variances to city building codes in exchange for giving the city a one-year option to purchase or find a buyer for the Given building and parcel on which it sits for $3.75 million.

Much of the opposition centered on the planned removal of 51 trees and the effect the new houses would have on Hallam Lake-area views. Others said that luxury homes were not what Aspen philanthropist Elizabeth Paepcke had in mind when she donated the land to the University of Colorado for a conference center in 1970.

“We are strongly opposed to this proposal as it stands,” said Tom Cardamone, executive director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. He said it was important for the community to stand behind an existing ordinance that protects long-standing trees.

“We have a sense that there’s a lot of history just in the trees,” he said.

Cardamone said the best solution lies in creating a consortium willing to buy the property from the university and protect it for conservation purposes. The university hopes to complete the sale of the property by late February or March, forcing a time crunch for city planners and those in the community who want to shape its future development.

Nearby resident Jonathan Lewis said he was “offended that the architect of such a bold application is not here.” He cited the proposed tree removals, and other incentives sought by SC Acquisitions, such as various development fee waivers totaling an estimated $2 million. Another concession would be an above-ground floor area for each of the three homes at around 5,750 square feet, well above the square-footage limitations outlined for R-6 zoning districts.

Michael Fox said he took issue with the way the plan was being presented. “When you read the proposal, it’s sort of, ‘Give us all this – or else!’ It proposes to save the Given site by destroying the Given site, which absolutely makes no sense.”

Al Dietsch said he knew Paepcke. He said the redevelopment of the property under the SC Acquisitions proposal obviously was not something the community favored.

“I have a vision of [Elizabeth Paepcke’s] ghost walking the Hallam Lake bluff and screaming in horror over this proposal,” he said.

Others took aim at the University of Colorado, which has received a demolition permit for the property, for rushing to sell.

The city has no control over the school’s prerogative to sell the land, said the city’s community development director, Chris Bendon. He suggested that interested citizens could try to lobby university officials for more time for negotiations.

He also pointed out the uncertainty the community might face if negotiations with SC Acquisitions fall through. The university could come back with another plan that may be less to the community’s liking and fails to keep the Given building intact. Or, a better plan might emerge, he said.

“We don’t have the ability to tell CU that they can’t sell their property,” Bendon said.

Comments from some members of the commissions were perhaps stronger than those from the audience.

“I don’t think this is a very sensitive application,” said Jason Lasser, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission. He said the proposed driveway calls for unnecessarily removing trees. He also expressed concern over the request for an exemption from Hallam Lake’s height limits and setback variances.

“This is the worst application I’ve ever seen,” Lasser said. “This is a bad starting place.”

Fellow commission member Jay Maytin’s comments were much the same. “I’m almost insulted,” he said. “It’s a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks application.”

Maytin said the applicant would show more sensitivity to the community if he revealed himself. He said he has been placed in a tough position, torn between saving a building and saving a landscape.

Planning and Zoning Commissioner Jasmine Tygre said she wished the applicant would submit to the normal development review process.

But Jamie McLeod, an HPC member, said the property was given to the university without long-term requirements. She voiced concern for property owners’ rights, and expressed disdain over some of the harsh comments.

“I would caution us [to remember] that this is a private entity, and we need to respect that,” McLeod said.

She did suggest that SC Acquisitions return on Jan. 19 with a more sensitive approach to its site plans, and asked the developer to create smaller building envelopes and to save more trees.

Johnson, representing the would-be developer, said the opposition was “more vociferous than we expected.” He said he would speak with his client to determine what course to take before the next meeting.

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