Council pulls plug on Power Plant

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
David Cook (center), one of the principals of the Aspen Power Plant, makes his case for the project while meeting Tuesday with Aspen City Council. The council decided against approving the lease because of community divisiveness over the matter, among other reasons.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

The Aspen Power Plant project has run out of steam.

Members of the City Council said Tuesday they could no longer support the Power Plant because of continuing community polarization, the potential for a bitter election and the group’s changing business model since it was approved in March 2015.

The public meeting, held before a packed audience composed of Power Plant supporters and members of nonprofit organizations that had vied for the coveted space, was to negotiate the lease for 590 N. Mill St., once the longtime home of the Aspen Art Museum and currently the temporary space of the Pitkin County Library.

The council and the Power Plant team previously had met behind closed doors in the past weeks to discuss the lease. The two-level, 7,200-square-foot building is city property.

“The reality is, this has become an exceptionally complicated and divisive issue unexpectedly,” Mayor Steve Skadron told three key figures behind the project — Duncan Clauss, David Cook and Spencer McKnight.

“There were some mistakes made by all sides,” Councilman Adam Frisch said. “I do think from the city’s standpoint, we should have put a six-week deadline on this. … The conversation we’re having now literally could have happened a year ago.”

Skadron called for the building to temporarily house city office space as the municipal government attempts to move forward with its grander plans to build a new City Hall.

“While the city is occupying that space, we will initiate another public process for use of this building,” the mayor said, directing city staff to set up a meeting about the riverfront building’s future.

“To persist with this application … will continue to be divisive for the community, and as a council, our task is to build consensus in the community and not promote division,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said.

After the trio learned that the council’s position was firm, there was little left for them to say.

“We’re tremendously disappointed with the outcome,” Cook said. “We care about this town, and you guys are the stewards of the DNA in this town, and we appreciate everything.”

Changing plans

The Power Plant group, spearheaded by Cook and McKnight, owners of the Aspen 82 television station, and Clauss, owner of Aspen Brewing Co., won over the City Council last year the request-for-proposals process, despite a citizens committee selecting the Aspen Science Center, the Red Brick Center for the Arts, GrassRoots TV and resident Paul Kienast’s gathering-spot proposal as the finalists.

Nothing during the request-for-proposal process said the applicant had to be a nonprofit, but the Power Plant group was the only applicant that was for-profit. Its pitch: to reinvent the building so that it would house a beer garden, restaurant, TV studio and event space on the ground floor, with a cut-rate, 65-space office setting on the second floor.

It wasn’t long before nearby residents took aim at the project, their main gripe that the alcohol service would diminish their quality of life and property values.

Meanwhile, the city had maintained that the property was zoned low-density residential and would likely require a rezone to public use. But in April, after digging deeper into the property’s history, city officials learned that it had been zoned for public use in 1988.

That appeared to be a win for the Power Plant group, but it wasn’t clear-cut. Skadron noted at Tuesday’s discussion that the Power Plant, which would be the landlord for the four tenants, could seek tax-exempt status from the IRS, potentially making it eligible for the space without a rezone. Or it could stick to its for-profit model while the council attempted a planned-development overlay.

But both options, the only ones that seemed plausible, still wouldn’t get traction with the council, the mayor said.

“Council is not inclined to go in either direction,” Skadron said.

A zoning overlay would require the council’s approval by ordinance, which could spark a citizen referendum. Played out, that scenario could result in an election.

“We can’t continue to argue about a matter that is not in our best long-term interest,” Councilman Art Daily said, adding that “we’ve reached the point where we’re forcing the issue too hard. We’re just pushing it too hard. I’m deeply sorry, and I’m heartbroken that we’ve come this far without … a solution and that we badly disappointed this wonderful group.”

Mullins said the changes over the past 15 months also led to her decision.

“You’re presenting us with a different project than the one we approved,” she said.

Even so, the Power Plant group attempted to quell neighbors’ and the nearby Theatre Aspen’s concerns by eliminating hard alcohol from their menu, not allowing on-site parking, forbidding events to be held during theater productions and other concessions.

The Power Plant’s proposed lease, made public Friday, included conditions that would have required the city to pay as much as $1.35 million for building improvements that would include a new air-conditioning system, adequate water and sewer service and possible repair or replacement of the building’s roof, windows and other elements.

They also proposed paying $15 per square foot — or $52,500 — per year for the ground-level space and $10 annually for the office space, which they had claimed would be a community service because upstart entrepreneurs could use it for below-market rates.

Councilman Bert Myrin didn’t participate in the discussions because he is involved in the marketing of a home that is for sale in the immediate vicinity.


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