Centennial proposal seeks free-market, affordable housing in perpetuity

One of Aspen’s largest employee housing complexes may see redevelopment

The national firm that owns Centennial Apartments in Aspen’s east end neighborhood is proposing to demolish 148 affordable housing units and replace them with rent controlled ones in perpetuity, in exchange for building up to 60 free-market condos on the roughly 10-acre parcel.

The concept will be floated in front of Aspen City Council later this summer as part of what’s called a sketch plan review in which elected officials can offer their initial opinions before a formal land-use application is submitted.

“Let’s see what the feedback is and see what we can do,” said Jeff Solomon, director of acquisitions for Indiana-based Birge & Held, a national apartment owner, management and development firm that bought the Centennial complex last year. “We are testing the waters.”

Solomon was on hand Tuesday during an open house for tenants to answer questions and explain the development concept to them.

One of the biggest concerns tenants expressed is where the between 350 and 400 residents, all of whom are part of the local workforce, will live while the project is under construction.

“As we go to council it will be pointed discussion,” Solomon said. “We take it very seriously. … We have a number of concepts we are looking at and we know this is going to be a huge talking point.”

Eight-year Centennial resident Kat Schultz was one of a handful of people who attended Tuesday’s open house, where she took Solomon to task.

“To be kicked out of my apartment is offensive,” she said, noting that the local workforce is being driven out of Aspen due to the rising cost of living and high priced real estate. “If I get kicked out of my apartment I might have to leave Aspen because there is nowhere else to go.”

Schultz said later on Tuesday that she is suspicious of her landlord’s intentions.

“I would be foolish to think they have our best interests at heart when they are just thinking about their pocket books,” she said.

While Birge & Held typically focuses on buying and managing apartment buildings, Centennial offers an opportunity to secure affordable housing on the site and have the free-market component provide the capital to finance it, Solomon said.

“We definitely see the need and the desire for deed restricted units, and we are sensitive to the need,”‘ he said. “What can we do to accommodate a permanent deed restriction?”

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 two sides couldn’t agree to terms.

The current sketch plan places the affordable housing apartments in the middle of the property, making better use of the green space for actual use, like picnic tables, barbecue grills and interactive areas in between buildings, according to Solomon.

“Our goal is to have a useable outdoor plan,” he said. “We want to engage activity between buildings and improve livability.”

Currently the space in between buildings is lawn area, and is not actively used.

“There’s a lot of green space but it doesn’t have a purpose,” said Chris Bendon, principal of BendonAdams, a local land use consulting firm representing Birge & Held.

Eight free-market buildings with each between six and eight condos averaging around 1,700 or 1,800 square feet would be built on the perimeter of the property.

Solomon said it’s yet-to-be determined whether they would be for sale or rent but would be geared for working professionals who make a significant amount more than the average Aspen working class or service employee.

The new affordable housing buildings would be more energy efficient than the current 35- to 40-year-old ones, and would have better layouts, and amenities such as washer and dryers and storage, according to Solomon and Bendon.

The average unit size currently in the deed restricted apartments is 707 square feet.

Solomon said the new apartment sizes would be the same as now, if not larger.

Birge & Held and its design team met with city officials in the community development and capital asset departments a couple of months ago onsite to discuss preliminary plans, according to Ben Anderson, the city’s principal long range planner.

The property is located in the city’s residential, multi-family zone district and allows for free-market development, he noted.

“The underlying zoning allows for a significant development right,” Anderson said. “Free market is a lever they can push.”

He said sketch plan review will indicate where council sits on the idea.

“The city is very interested in the expiring deed restrictions,” Anderson said, noting its potential impact. “It’s a big project, there are a lot of people who live there.”

If a potential redevelopment moves forward, the project would start no earlier than 2024, according to Birge & Held.

Construction would take between 18 months and two and a half years, depending whether the project would be phased.

Birge & Held bought the property for nearly $51 million from Centennial Aspen II Limited Partnership, of which Sam Brown was general partner and who developed the property in the 1980s.

Bendon said sketch plan review will indicate where council members want to go, but he has a sense already.

“I would expect relocation and the re-import (of tenants) back in would be most important to council,” he said.


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