City approves downtown Aspen Art Museum
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council on Monday night tentatively approved by a 4-1 vote a settlement in a lawsuit between the city and the owner of the Wienerstube building that will result in the Aspen Art Museum moving to the city core.
The decision came after seven hours of tense community debate and deliberation between the council. The discussion was highlighted by concern about the unusual process of what is essentially a land-use approval in the form of a lawsuit settlement.
Councilman Steve Skadron, the sole dissenter in the vote, and Councilman Torre said the process backed them into a corner in which they would be forced to either decide to approve the proposal as it stands – one of the most invasive projects in the Aspen core’s history – or be threatened with losing the lawsuit in the Colorado Court of Appeals.
“I don’t support a process that limits my ability to represent the best interests of the community,” Skadron said.
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the director and chief curator of the museum, argued that Aspen needs a public amenity such as the art museum in the downtown core, regardless of the process.
“If it is before you as a settlement of litigation, then so be it,” she said. “Everything is not flawless.”
The approval is on the condition that the developer, 633 Spring Street LLC, and the art museum comply with several additions to the application for the project, including assurance that taxpayers will not fund any of the new museum.
Project leaders will draft language to add to the application in accordance with those requirements, and City Council will vet the language at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.
Wienerstube owners sued the city last year for denying its original application to redevelop the building, saying the council acted outside its jurisdiction because the building fit the city land-use code. That application did not include housing for the art museum.
Ireland supported the project throughout the meeting. He said it is nearly always better to settle litigation than to have a judge decide because the judge can rule outside the favor of both parties.
“I think the community should decide,” he said, referencing the City Council’s responsibility to represent the community. “I don’t think it should be made by three people in robes I don’t know yet.”
Councilman Dwayne Romero, who also supported the proposal throughout the meeting, said the art museum would be a public amenity in downtown that would come at no expense to taxpayers.
“We’re getting it without having to give up any of our resources,” he said.
Dozens of community members spoke during the public comment section of the meeting; an overwhelming majority, including Pitkin County Sheriff candidate Rick Magnuson, were in support of the initiative.
Most of the 12 people who spoke against the approval cited the substantial size of the project.
But local attorney Jody Edwards said it’s not the public benefit of the museum becoming cozier with the community that should be considered; it’s the approval of an application that lacked the normal public process that should be important.
Most land-use proposals are vetted by the Planning and Zoning Commission before they go to the City Council. That didn’t happen with this proposal.
Chris Bendon, the city’s director of community development, said he was comfortable with the process, adding that planning and zoning officials had a chance to review the proposal, but declined.
The two developments that will come from the approval are the 30,000-square-foot new museum on the corner of Spring Street and Hyman Avenue, and a 15,000-square-foot redevelopment of the current space on which the Wienerstube restaurant sits, 11,250 square feet of which is dedicated to commercial leasing.
Of the museum, 10,000 square feet would be underground, and 12,000 square feet would be dedicated to galleries – more space than the museum’s current spot offers. Plans call for a glass building encased in a screen-like transparent wooden facade.
Monday’s City Council meeting offered the first public comment on the proposal.
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