City OKs moving visitors center
A Main Street building that will house a new Aspen visitors center and chamber offices won narrow approval Monday after a lengthy and, in the end, contentious City Council debate.
A standing-room-only crowd offered mostly opposition to the project, slated for the corner of Main and Galena streets, during a four-plus-hour discussion. It ended with a sharply divided council and interruptions from one member that had Mayor Helen Klanderud threatening to suspend the proceedings.
“This is the most ridiculous decision I’ve seen this council make,” said Councilman Terry Paulson, who pushed to cut off council discussion when it became apparent the project would pass with a 3-2 vote. It did.
Paulson and Councilman Torre voted against the project; Paulson ultimately urged citizens to initiate a referendum to put it to a public vote.
Meanwhile, attorneys representing homeowners in the neighboring Galena Lofts hinted there is room for a legal fight, citing protective covenants on the property that prohibit any development that exceeds commercial core zoning. Though the project’s height, at a maximum of 40 feet, is within the zoning limits, two attorneys suggested the ratio of its floor area to the lot exceeds what’s allowed.
City Attorney John Worcester suggested the city approval be contingent on his review of the covenants to ensure the project can go forward.
The city approached property owners Lowell Meyer and Gary Freedman with the idea of relocating the visitors center and Aspen Chamber Resort Association offices to the high-profile corner, next to US Bank. A proposal for a mixed-use building with free-market housing, commercial space and the ACRA offices/visitors center emerged. The city has struck a deal to purchase the chamber/visitors center space for $1.03 million and lease it to the ACRA.
Torre balked at the expenditure, however, suggesting the $42,650 annual net cost to the city for 20 years could be better spent elsewhere. He advocated using the former Aspen Youth Center, located nearby, as the new visitors center.
“To put it bluntly, I would ask that the ACRA buy this space,” he said. “Is it a great deal? It is. But do we need it? No.”
Among members of the public, many questioned using taxpayer dollars to relocate the ACRA and its visitors center one block, from their current quarters in the front of the Rio Grande Parking Garage, up to Main Street. Many urged the city to simply erect better signs to direct tourists to the existing center.
“Aspen is famous for never putting signs to anything,” complained one resident.
Others suggested congestion at the busy corner makes it unsuitable for a visitors center.
Marcia Goshorn, a member of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Board, chided the city for failing to require any affordable housing in the project – in effect, holding the project to a lesser standard in exchange for a deal on office space.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who favored the project, urged the council to consider subsidizing one of two garden-level studios in the building to create a unit of deed-restricted worker housing.
A number of citizens voicing objections to the project identified themselves as condo owners at the Galena Lofts, located just north of the project. Views from the upper floors of the recently renovated Lofts will be ruined if the project goes forward. The office building that currently exists on the corner is a one-story structure from its Main Street facade. It will become part of a three-story building, in addition to a garden level that isn’t visible from Main Street.
“I appreciate the concerns of the neighbors,” Klanderud said. “If I owned property there, I would be sitting where you are tonight.”
She voted in favor of the project, though, citing the benefits it presents to the community as a whole.
“It may not be perfect, but it’s real and it’s doable,” said Councilman Tim Semrau, who also supported the proposal.
Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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