City to save Isis? | AspenTimes.com
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City to save Isis?

Janet Urquhart

While city officials scramble to see what can be done to preserve the Isis Theatre, the building has already been gutted of some key components.

The screens and sound system at the five-screen theater have been removed, workers at the site confirmed Monday. They were waiting for a moving van yesterday to cart the projectors to California. The concession stand had already been dismantled.

The theater seats, however, remain.

The fixtures are being removed by California-based Resort Theaters of America, which leased the building and operated the theater business. RTA filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and the company decided to close the Aspen operation, though other theaters in its chain remain open at this point.

RTA had been trying to renegotiate its lease with the owners of the Isis building, former Isis manager Sharon McWilliams told The Aspen Times last week.

With the talks going nowhere and, according to McWilliams, a deadline looming yesterday to reach a deal, the theater closed abruptly last Thursday night after its final showings. The top-of-the-line facility opened a year ago after a huge renovation project that turned a funky, old one-screen cinema into a plush five-plex with residences on the third floor.

Jon Busch, founder of the Wheeler Film Society, and Leslie Holst, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission when the Isis renovation was approved, appeared before the Aspen City Council Monday during its informal noon meeting and urged council members to do something.

Both men encouraged the council to bring in the building owners, represented by local developer Sam Houston, as soon as possible to discuss the theater’s fate.

“This is a great asset and we can’t lose it,” agreed Councilman Tony Hershey.

Holst said the HPC granted “huge concessions” to allow the redevelopment of the Isis and suggested the council has the leverage to ensure its continued use as a theater.

“They were given development rights based on it remaining a theater,” Holst asserted.

City officials aren’t so sure, but they’re checking.

“We’re in the process of pulling the original application,” said City Manager Steve Barwick. “There were a number of concessions that were made by the city when that went in.”

The city is also reviewing what approvals would be required if the theater were to convert to another use, Barwick said.

Councilman Terry Paulson, who served on the council when the Isis redevelopment was approved, said it was the city’s intent to see the property continue to operate as a theater.

“I thought we were pretty adamant that this has to be a theater, but whether it’s written in stone or not, I don’t know,” he said.

The city attorney’s office will have plenty of paperwork to sift through as it tries to find out. The computer records in the clerk’s office indicate there are more than 130 documents and meeting minutes on file for the Isis redevelopment.

A 1995 memo to the council from former city planner Dave Michaelson indicates the council was concerned at the time with the potential for the renovated theater to convert to some other use in the future.

Among the council’s concerns, according to the memo, was: “Is there a method to ensure that all approvals are contingent on the continued use of the property as a theater?”

Michaelson’s answer, essentially, appears to be “No.”

The property’s existing commercial core zoning allows a variety of uses, including a theater. The city can’t enforce additional restrictions regarding a property’s specific use beyond the restrictions contained in the city code. “Efforts to do so have been struck down by several courts as `contract zoning,'” Michaelson wrote.

However, the memo also notes that any expansion or change in use at the theater would require an analysis of how many additional employees would need to be housed.

“Due to the unusually low ratio of employees per square foot for theater uses, any change in use would require significant mitigation, either in the form of cash-in-lieu or off-site buy-down of existing units,” Michaelson wrote.

The remodeled Isis contains two three-bedroom affordable housing units on the third floor, as well as a free-market residence.

The council’s January 1996 approval of the affordable housing also makes note of Planning and Zoning Commission recommendations to allow the project to exceed the allowable floor area in its zone district. A reduction of the required trash and utility service area and reduction of the minimum open space requirements within the zone district are also noted in the ordinance.

The council, in a March 1998 resolution, also granted the owner, Isis LLC, an extended period in which to pay $250,000 in open space mitigation. The owners requested a payment schedule that allowed the five $50,000-per-year payments to begin on the fifth anniversary of the date the building permit was issued, rather than in the first year.

According to the resolution, the council approved the modified payment schedule “in recognition of the value of the theater to the community” and “to relieve some burden that preservation of the theater might have over converting the building to retail shops.”

Houston could not be reached for comment Monday on the possible fate of the building.

RTA chief executive Richard Lawrence told the Times last week that the theater company lost $700,000 in the operation of the Aspen theater in its first year.


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