Frustrated Aspen council approves Pitkin County’s building plans

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times

The Aspen City Council approved Pitkin County’s plans for a new building late Monday night, though board members complained they weren’t allowed enough input and recommended certain changes.

Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron characterized the project as being “summarily rejected” by city planning staff and the Historic Preservation Commission.

“Staff like almost nothing about this,” Skadron said. “HPC liked almost nothing about it. I like almost nothing about it.”

Pitkin County submitted the land use application for the building under state law that allows the city 60 days to approve it or it is considered automatically approved. That deadline runs out May 17. The county wants to renovate the 17,000 current Plaza building at 530 Main St., and add both a 24,000 square foot addition with an 8,000 square foot underground parking garage.

If the council would have denied the application, a majority two-thirds vote by county commissioners could have overridden the denial and the project would still go forward. The same goes for any conditions the city council add to the project in approving it.

Commissioners will now have to talk about whether to accept the council’s changes or try and override them with a two-thirds vote.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins wondered out loud what exactly they were being asked to do Monday night if the county didn’t have to accept any conditions imposed by the council.

“Can we require changes?” Mullins asked.

“Ask, yes,” said Councilman Adam Frisch. “Require, no.”

The county could have opted to go through the normal city building review process but decided not to.

“Just because your lawyer tells you you can do it doesn’t mean you should,” Frisch said.

City staff wanted the county to reduce the height and mass on the north side of the addition, create more space between the addition and the Pitkin County Courthouse, create a stronger architectural relationship between the addition and the Plaza building and courthouse and make tweaks in certain design elements.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said submitting a public use building under the 60-day state law is the normal process. He pointed out that the city has used that process seven times for buildings.

Peacock and Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards took issue with the characterization that the HPC didn’t like the project, saying they perceived the commission’s reaction as positive.

The council didn’t take up the issue of the county building until after 9 p.m., and didn’t vote on the project until about 11:45 p.m. At that time, they asked county officials to reduce the mass of the building and make a multi-story curtain of windows that marks the building’s entrance more compatible with surrounding buildings.

City councilors also asked that when the county renovates the historic Pitkin County Courthouse, officials ask the city’s HPC about removing a non-historic stairway, which would create more space between the addition and the courthouse building.

After listening to lengthy presentations by Peacock and other county officials, both Mullins and Councilman Art Daily were mostly supportive of the project. Councilman Bert Myrin, Frisch and Skadron were more skeptical but open to finding workable solutions.