Finding the right fit for the Emma store site

New plan aims to make the site more inviting to the public

The distinguished brick buildings that were once the heartbeat of Emma won’t be resurrected any time soon but the property will be made more inviting to the public.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of trustees recently approved a plan that outlines future uses. Now, the plan goes before the county commissioners for final approval before implementation.

The plan calls for the open space program to make improvements and add amenities to “encourage more people to explore the property and historic buildings in a more intimate way than just passing by.”

Open space board member Graeme Means said at Thursday’s meeting he would like to see the 12.5-acre property become a passive park that is more inviting.

“It’s a beautiful site that isn’t well known or used right now,” he said.

The plan said the possibilities amenities might be interpretative displays, a water fountain, seating or picnic tables, a river overlook and the always-important porta-potty.

But to really engage the public, a trail will be routed through the property.

“As part of a phased approach to rerouting the Emma Trail, OST will first add a soft-surface trail to provide a way to activate the site and open it up to more public visitation without the more substantial investment of a paved trail realignment,” the plan says. “In the future, the trail may be completely relocated in order to create room for improvements on the highway side of the buildings and bring the public through the activated site. The interim soft-surface trail will allow more people to enjoy the river side of the site and get acquainted with the quieter side of the buildings.”

The plan wasn’t able to determine what to do on the more hectic side of the buildings. When Highway 82 was rerouted and expanded to four lanes in the midvalley in the late 1980s, the new alignment brought the road within a few feet of the old Emma store and, adjacent to the west, a warehouse.

Prior to that, the buildings were isolated, said Liz Newman, a longtime Emma resident and member of a volunteer steering committee who looked at possibilities for the site.

“It was kind of hidden paradise, agricultural kind of area,” she said.

The townsite parcel has four historic structures constructed around 1898 by Charles H. Mather, according to the open space program’s research. Pitkin County bought the structures in 2008 and stabilized the exterior of the brick store, warehouse and small accessory building.

“The side-by-side store and warehouse buildings are the only existing Victorian-era commercial building examples in the county, and retain an exceptionally high degree of integrity and architectural detail,” the plan said.

The Victorian Mather house has been restored and rented out. It’s now a private residence that wouldn’t be open to increased public visitation.

The store and warehouse combine for about 7,000 square feet of leasable space, but their location right next to the highway makes it difficult to approve uses that would draw traffic to the area.

The two buildings are suffering from snowplowing operations on the highway and the application of deicer. Harry Teague, renowned architect and another member of the steering committee, said it is important to find a way to protect the buildings from the highway maintenance. The tricky part is finding a solution.

“You come up with a million and a half bucks to move the building — that will work,” he said.

In lieu of that tough relocation challenge, a fence, Plexiglas shield or some solution not yet dreamed up will be necessary to save the structures.

“It’s not an easy problem,” Teague said.

A brewpub has been ruled out at the site. Potential uses such as an arts center, museum, small-scale meeting place, offices and agriculture-related community uses have been contemplated. Small-scale retail and office space is also in the running.

Means said bring the buildings to life would require a “development project,” which is not within the open space program’s area of expertise.

The ultimate goal is to “develop a process to seek proposals or partnerships to activate the buildings,” according to the plan. Open space wants to find a “champion” that is passionate about the reuse and activation of the buildings in a way that is compatible with the vision statement.

Open space board member Howie Mallory questioned why any activation of the historic commercial buildings is necessary. He said the area between Emma and Willits could fill in with development as time marches on.

“To me, it’s OK to leave it as it is,” Mallory said. “This area may be no more than a park.”