Future in doubt for Aspen’s Given Institute building

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Jonathan Lewis, who has a contract to purchase the Given Institute property from the University of Colorado, strongly considered buying and redeveloping the land last year, city of Aspen officials confirmed Friday.

Lewis showed documents to the city that included preliminary information, including artist’s renderings, about what he wanted to do with the 2.25-acre property, Community Development Director Chris Bendon and Mayor Mick Ireland said. The Aspen Times asked to see those plans late Friday but was told to file a public records request. Officials said they weren’t sure whether the plans are an open record because Lewis did not submit a formal development application.

“We did have some discussions with [Lewis] about purchasing the property and exploring different concepts about what they would do with the property,” Bendon said. “There was definitely some interest there … in some development options. I’m not sure how much information I can share.”

During Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission public hearings earlier this year on a plan by SC Acquisitions LLC to build three luxury homes on the site – while giving the city a one-year option to find a buyer for the parcel of land that contained the architecturally acclaimed Given Institute building – Lewis was a vocal critic.

The person or group of people behind SC Acquisitions never appeared publicly and the name of the company’s owner was never released. The company was represented by local attorney Bart Johnson and planner Mitch Haas. At one meeting, Lewis said he was “offended that the architect of such a bold application is not here.”

Like other opponents, Lewis mainly talked about the impact that a three-house development, along with the removal of trees, would have on the neighborhood and the Hallam Lake Bluff area. He lives next door to the Given Institute property in the city’s West End.

Lewis could not be reached for comment for this story. He has yet to state publicly his long-term plans for the property.

Jacque Montgomery, director of public relations for the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver, which owns and operates the Given Institute, said Lewis has an option to buy the property for $13.8 million. The purchase is contingent on CU’s demolition of the Given building, she said.

The contract calls for the deal to close within three days of the building’s demolition sometime in the middle or latter part of April, Montgomery said. CU holds a demolition permit that allows it to tear down the building after satisfying certain conditions, such as asbestos removal, Bendon said.

In January and February, during public discussions between city officials and SC Acquisitions, much attention was given to saving the Given building. Now it appears as though the building, built in 1972 by modernist architect Harry Weese, will be destroyed in April unless a third party steps in soon to work out a deal with Lewis to preserve it.

On Feb. 3, the Given Institute was selected for Colorado’s 2011 Most Endangered Places List by Colorado Preservation Inc. CPI placed the Given on its annual list of the most imperiled sites in the state. There were 44 historic sites nominated this year and six were selected for the list.

At the time, CPI Executive Director James Hare said the organization devotes staff time and resources to raising funds to save imperiled historic sites, and it helps rally concerned citizens in preservation efforts. He expressed high hopes for preserving the Given Institute building.

Hare could not be reached for comment Friday.

Michael Fox, who sits on the board of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, also spoke out against the SC Acquisitions proposal. Many ACES board members, along with director Tom Cardamone, feared that the development would ruin the pristine nature of the Hallam Lake wetlands area and views of the bluff from the ACES property.

Fox said while he doesn’t know what Lewis would do with the land, he believes Lewis would be a good steward of the property.

“He’ll do a lot less on that site than anyone else [would] do,” Fox said. “He’ll probably have the least impact of any potential buyer.”

Fox said he was as concerned about the land surrounding the building as he was about the building itself.

“To tear down all the trees and put three houses on it, and do all the crazy stuff [SC Acquisitions] wanted to do, would have been tragic,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see if the city or a nonprofit can come together to work with Jonathan to preserve the building. I think that opportunity’s still there.”

Mayor Ireland said it would be an “environmental disaster” to tear down the Given building. At previous meetings, it was estimated that the building’s removal would require hauling 55 truckloads of debris from the site to the county landfill.

“I think we could have preserved the building and most of the open space if we had enough time to assemble a coalition to buy it,” he said.

Ireland said the 4-5 weeks between now and mid-April, when CU plans to move ahead with demolition, is not enough time for the city to form such a coalition. Earlier this year, officials said the nonprofit Aspen Valley Medical Foundation was interested in taking over the building to continue its use as a place for meetings and conferences in possible conjunction with the city and other nonprofits. But those plans never materialized.

CU bought the property in the early 1970s at half its assessed value from the late Elizabeth Paepcke. When the Given Institute building was completed, the structure and property surrounding it became the frequent site of medical conferences and seminars.

Last year, CU initiated plans to sell the property because it no longer wanted to manage its $200,000-a-year upkeep and also to raise money to shore up its sagging finances.