Decision time for Aspen Visitors Center?

Janet Urquhart

A proposed new Aspen Visitors Center, which has riled neighbors and given rise to questions from citizens about its $1 million cost to the city, is scheduled for a final decision from the City Council on Monday.

The mixed-use building, slated for the corner of Main and Galena streets next to US Bank, would include 1,360 square feet of office space for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s headquarters, plus 900 square feet for its main Visitors Center.

The city has reached a deal to purchase the space for $1.03 million and lease it to the ACRA, moving the agency out of its less visible location in front of the Rio Grande Parking Garage.

The ACRA offices would go in the garden level of the building, along with two studio apartments.

From Main Street, the building would appear as a three-story structure, with the Visitors Center and other commercial office space on the ground floor, two residences on a second floor, and a penthouse unit on the third floor.

At 40 feet in height, it would be within the city’s zoning for the property, but it would block views of Aspen Mountain from the newly renovated Galena Lofts to the north.

Galena Loft condo owners have been among the most vocal opponents of the project. Two real estate sale signs have appeared in front of the Galena Lofts, and the homeowners have warned the city that they have hired an attorney to review the process that led to the proposed project.

Aspen resident Janet Garwood objects to the project’s cost implications for the city and intends to speak up at Monday’s public hearing.

“I’m concerned with the economic impact of a million-dollar expenditure,” she said. “It’s money that can be used for other things.”

After leasing the space to the ACRA, the impact to the city is an estimated net subsidy of $41,600 for 20 years.

The city actually approached property owners Gary Freedman and Lowell Meyer about putting a new Visitors Center on the corner. The partners own the office building that exists there now.

The project that emerged went through the city’s COWOP review process, used when the city is a player in a development. The ungainly acronym stands for Convenience and Welfare of the Public. The task force included representatives of city government and neighboring properties.

The COWOP group voted 11-1 to recommend the project to the council; the “no” vote came from the Galena Lofts representative on the task force.

The expansion of the existing building would add floors and fill in the grassy space next to the structure. Three trees in the tiny yard must be replanted elsewhere or, if they’re cut down, the building owners face a $13,621 mitigation fee.

The Visitors Center would be served by six short-term parking spaces on Main Street and six more on the northern nub of Galena, displacing some police-car parking.

New spaces for police and sheriff’s vehicles would be created on the east side of the library, off the alleyway that runs behind the Galena Lofts. The new parking would cut into an area where planters containing vegetation and trees currently exist; the city expects to relocate the trees. It will have to remove at least some of them anyway when it repairs the leaking roof of the parking garage, said city planner Chris Bendon.

The rest of the parklike Rio Grande Plaza, which is perched on the roof of the garage, would not be altered, he said.

There will be no on-site parking for the residential units in the building. Rather than pay a parking mitigation fee, the developers will contribute $60,000 to Roaring Fork Vehicles – enough to finance the leasing and operation of one vehicle in the car-sharing program for 10 years, Bendon said.

Residents of the proposed building can get a permit to park in surrounding neighborhoods, as can Galena Lofts homeowners and other residents of downtown structures that have no on-site parking.

None of the residences in the mixed-use building will be deed-restricted as affordable housing. The City Council was given the option of paying more for the Visitors Center to offset the cost of making one or both of the garden-level units deed-restricted housing, but declined.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is