Downtown Aspen’s unbuilt environment causing angst
There’s a growing concern among city officials on developer Mark Hunt’s inability to finish the job
City of Aspen officials are growing increasingly concerned about several buildings controlled by prominent landlord Mark Hunt that are boarded up and empty of tenants.
“We have heard from a number of residents about eyesore properties,” said Phillip Supino, the city’s director of community development. “It’s not a good look for residents, visitors or for the Hunt team.”
The city reached out to the Hunt development team last month asking them to clean up debris and remove graffiti at some downtown buildings and improve conditions at the old Boomerang Lodge in the West End neighborhood.
Hunt said last week that he recognizes the Boomerang property needs some attention.
“We do need a proper fence; we inherited that,” he said. “That can definitely look better. … We will get it cleaned up.”
City officials’ larger concern is the economic and community vitality that continues to erode every year that Hunt’s properties remain vacant or under construction.
Hunt, through limited liability companies with undisclosed investors, owns the now boarded-up Buckhorn Arms building at the corner of Cooper Avenue and Original Street; the shuttered Red Onion building on Cooper Avenue, as well as the ones on either side of it; the one next door to those — the Bidwell building, which is under construction; the old Crystal Palace on Hyman Avenue that is being developed but currently no construction is taking place; the defunct Main Street Bakery building; and several others that currently have tenants.
It’s been several years since Hunt has purchased those properties and received land-use approvals for them, but changes keep being made to the plans.
“There’s a pattern of wanting to change designs,” said Amy Simon, the city’s director of planning. “Community development would like to see the projects proceed. We are concerned with the effects of empty buildings and extended construction periods.”
Hunt, who arrived on the Aspen commercial real estate scene more than a decade ago and has developed three properties in that time, said it’s been a challenging environment to build.
He said he’s dealt with four land use code changes, a commercial development moratorium, a citizen-led referendum allowing the electorate to decide on variances and ordinances limiting heights to 28 feet and the ability for chain stores to be here.
“Those changes have consequences, and it takes it longer,” Hunt said.
Supino said he recognizes that Aspen has a complex development environment, which is a response to the community’s high expectations of downtown’s built landscape, but that doesn’t mean things can’t get done.
“While I agree that Aspen is a complex regulatory and development environment, we have several successful major redevelopments that are either underway or have been completed in recent years,” he said. “So I don’t accept the suggestion that it is the city’s fault that other projects are not moving along as quickly.”
Neither does Aspen Mayor Torre, who said many community members approach him lamenting and wondering about buildings that are historic in nature or had locally serving businesses in them that remain dormant.
“I share their frustration,” he said. “I very much disagree that the city is delaying his projects.”
Simon pointed out that Hunt had land-use approvals for 11 projects and could’ve built them, but when he makes significant changes to the original plans, some are subject to new land use code regulations.
“He can build what was approved,” she said.
Hunt said his team is not interested in building cookie-cutter type of buildings and is taking great care in the design and construction of his projects.
“The frustration on our end is we don’t focus on getting something off the shelf,” he said. “Our goal is to build great buildings that will be here a lot longer than we are or our children are.”
Another reason for the delay in the projects is that the changes being made to the buildings are tenant driven.
“I’m designing buildings without tenants,” Hunt said, adding that often those designs are rushed to get approvals before the rules change, again.
Changes to the original approvals at the Bidwell building at 434 E. Cooper Ave. and at the Crystal Palace on Hyman Avenue have delayed those projects and are at the request of the tenant and co-owner of the properties, RH, formerly known as Restoration Hardware.
Hunt said significant movement is happening at the Bidwell site, and construction will fire back up on the Crystal Palace site in March.
The Bidwell site will serve as RH’s main storefront, with a gallery and restaurant, and the former Crystal Palace will be a boutique hotel with the RH brand.
“RH is a visionary company, and it will be worth the wait,” Hunt said. “It’s frustrating for all the parties, and I apologize to the community that it’s taking longer than we thought.”
Changes also are being made to the original approval for a planned hotel known as Base1, where the Buckhorn Arms building is located across from City Market.
Hunt said his development company has a letter of intent with a hotel operator, who has requested reconfigurations to the room layouts and other changes in the building.
Base1 is planned to have a rooftop terrace with public access, along with bars, restaurants and other community amenities.
“I’m more excited about this building than any of them,” Hunt said, adding the city has been great in working with his team on this project. “It will be the greatest gift back to the community.”
The former Main Street Bakery property has approvals for a restaurant and a building permit has been submitted to the city and is in review.
That property, which Hunt bought in 2019 after it had been closed for almost three years, is an example of tenant needs stalling the project, he said.
Because there are two buildings involved on the site, one historic and one new, prospective restaurateurs said they wanted a breezeway.
That would’ve been a significant change that would’ve required lengthy review by the city, Hunt said.
“I bought it in its current condition, and we are well aware of the city’s aversion to change, so we waited, and unfortunately, it sat,” he said. “Finally, we found an operator that will go there without the breezeway, so, hopefully in two months, we are doing construction.”
He wouldn’t reveal the operator but said they have local ties, as do the future operators of the historic Red Onion, which is slated to open by Thanksgiving.
A music performance center operated by Jazz Aspen Snowmass is planned in the buildings next to and above the Red Onion.
“The lion’s share of the portfolio is ready to go,” Hunt said. “I understand the community is frustrated, but I promise that when we do it, it will be done right.”
The building housing Su Casa, Eric’s Bar and Aspen Billiards on Hyman Avenue has been leased to one tenant that has several concepts envisioned for the property that will include a restaurant, according to Hunt.
That tenant, which Hunt declined to identify, is expected to apply for a building permit this month to remodel the interior.
Su Casa, Eric’s and Aspen Billiards plan to close in April.
Torre said the closures of locally serving businesses like those which used to operate in many of Hunt’s buildings are what slowly erodes the community’s vitality and character.
The loss of so many affordable restaurants and bars and retail stores has prompted individuals to place “Evict Mark Hunt” stickers on buildings around town and on chairlifts and Kleenex dispensers in lift lines on Aspen Mountain.
“It has risen to a new level of frustration,” Torre said.
He added that having one developer taking on multiple projects at once is detrimental to the community.
“You should finish one before you start the next,” he said.
Torre said the municipal government is limited in what it can control in the free market, but he and other city officials are looking at ways to prevent what is happening, or not happening, in the future.
“When it comes to the evolution and redevelopment of Aspen, Colorado, it needs to be a collaborative effort where we are all working together,” he said.
Performance bonds can be attached to a project in case it stalls, but that only protects the construction site from being a hazard or to make a public improvement, like installing a sidewalk where there once was one.
“The city’s ability to influence the commercial sector, the real estate dynamic and types of businesses is limited,” Supino said, adding that there is a growing concern among residents and city officials about the disappearance of mom-and-pop, locally serving businesses that are necessary for a year-round sustainable community and economy. “I have said to Mark and his team that they ought to think about their impact on the local economy.”
The remodel of Limelight Hotel Aspen took about six months to complete, but settling more than $3.4 million in overdue debts related to the project has taken twice the time so far.