Is government really Aspen’s biggest developer? Could be … | AspenTimes.com
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Is government really Aspen’s biggest developer? Could be …

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

What is the most commonly lamented aspect of life in Aspen and the upper Roaring Fork Valley?

Ask just about anyone, resident or visitor, working stiff or ski-bum trust-funder, and the answer often will be that builders have turned the area into one huge construction site, and that government is one of the biggest culprits.

Whether the latter observation is true is a matter for conjecture and debate.

What is demonstrably true, however, is that governments in Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village have been on a building binge that will continue, some of it in phases and some depending on public approvals, into the foreseeable future.

The full scope of this spree is not always clear. There are stories in the local media about the various projects on the drawing boards or already in the ground, but a panoramic accounting of the plans is rare.

And that is what prompted the Aspen Times Weekly to undertake a review of the plans now in the works for all three jurisdictions, based on published reports and interviews with various officials.

The town of Snowmass Village has recently built two large public projects ” a recreation center next to the old Rodeo Grounds off Brush Creek Road, and the new town hall next to the Snowmass Center retail complex.

“As a town, I think we’re kind of done for a while,” said Hunt Walker, of the public works department, referring to future prospects for similar, large-scale civic projects.

The town hall, which cost nearly $9.9 million and took about 14 months to complete, is nearly finished, said Jason Haber, economic resources director for the town. The rec center cost $6.7 million, took just more than a year to build, and was finished in fall 2006. A gymnasium addition to that center was started last October and is to be finished by September 2008, for roughly $3.7 million. Finally, the town plans to spend another $2.1 million on further improvements to the so-called Town Park (in the vicinity of the rec center), adding a basketball court, four tennis courts, two volleyball courts, a skateboard park, a playground, pavilion, some “wetlands enhancement and increased landscaping over the whole park, [plus] lighting and signage, etc.”

In a separate effort, the town’s housing department has just begun work on the new Rodeo Place employee housing neighborhood, in the same general area as the rec center.

According to housing director Joe Coffee, the Town Council has not yet decided the total per-unit subsidy for the 20 single-family homes, four duplexes and, perhaps, one triplex planned for the project. But, he said, the town has committed $3.2 million so far, and is likely to add to that amount as costs firm up.

“We’re just getting going and figuring out our true costs now,” Coffee said this week. He said the town currently has a total of 247 rental apartments, and 127 deed-restricted sale units in its housing inventory.

Chief among the projects being contemplated by Pitkin County is the ongoing work to upgrade the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, also known as Sardy Field.

The county recently resurfaced the runway at a cost of $12 million and two months of lost business, from early April until early June 2007. The runway was part of a series of projects that have cost $42 million since 2002, including the installation of new navigational aids and relocation of the parallel taxiway on the east side of the airport, as well as construction of a new 30,000-square-foot operations building along Owl Creek Road.

Next, according to Aviation Director Jim Elwood, officials will update the airport’s master plan, which Elwood said is being driven by the Federal Aviation Administration’s schedule. Also starting soon is completion of the “terminal area plan,” which will outline improvements planned for the terminal in the coming years.

The airport master plan was last updated in 2004, Elwood said, and it concluded that “trying to remodel the existing structure is probably not the best path.” The existing terminal, he said, has a capacity of approximately 300,000 passengers per year, incoming and outgoing, but the airport has been operating at about 400,000 passengers per year for some time now.

The gate areas are too cramped for the numbers who use them, he said, and baggage claim “can become very, very congested.”

With the addition of flights from Frontier Airline’s introduction into the local market this year, he said, it is likely the airport’s human traffic counts will climb even higher.

The existing terminal was built in three stages starting in the early 1970s, and is arrayed on three distinct levels, which managers find difficult. They would like to see the building replaced with a one-level terminal.

The idea in 2004, he said, was to renovate the existing building with a new gate area and other upgrades, at a cost of $42.3 million.

With inflation factored in, Elwood continued, a phased, “progressive” reconstruction of the terminal is estimated to cost “more like $80 million.” He noted that price includes estimated costs for an underground parking garage, and that all future projects at the airport will be subject to public review and comment.

Elwood confirmed that there may be reasons for the county, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the city of Aspen to collaborate on possible changes to the traffic flow on Highway 82 as it approaches Aspen from downvalley.

He and other officials have said that, if the terminal is relocated to a spot closer to Aspen, it might end up sharing an intersection with a planned affordable housing project at the old BMC West site on the other side of the highway. In that case, officials have said, it may be advisable to either create an additional intersection and stoplight farther upvalley from the existing Aspen Business Center stoplight, or move the intersection from its existing location.

Also on the county’s to-do list for this year is a pair of dedicated bus lanes from the eastern end of the all-but-completed Highway 82 bridge over Maroon Creek to the roundabout at Maroon Creek and Castle Creek roads. The bus lanes, an $8.98 million project, is being paid for with the proceeds of a half-cent, countywide sales tax managed by the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, which is made up elected representatives from Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County.

The city of Aspen, on its own and in partnership with other local governments, nonprofits and other entities, currently is engaged in a number of projects that, if taken together, might easily amount to the biggest public-sector project in local history. But the projects are being tackled in stages over the coming years, which should reduce the impact on the community.

First among them is the so-called “ZG Master Plan,” so named for the fact that it initially involved an area of land starting with the former Zupancis property just east of the Pitkin County Courthouse Annex, and continuing westward to the Galena Plaza (Also, the initials “ZG” historically designated Aspen and Pitkin County on Colorado license plates). The “ZG” part of the project encompasses the Rio Grande Parking Garage, the building that formerly housed the Aspen Youth Center, and the Pitkin County Library.

But the broader effort, known currently as the City of Aspen Civic Master Plan, will affect several other parts of town. This budding plan will be the centerpiece of a public meeting March 12, from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Hotel Jerome, where city officials will discuss the possibilities and ask for public input.

Under discussion is a broad range of projects from the base of Aspen Mountain to the Roaring Fork River, along the Galena Street and Mill Street corridors, including:

– The expansion of the Wheeler Opera House on Hyman Avenue, with the proposed construction of an annex building on the pocket park west of the Wheeler. This project, as currently envisioned, could cost as much as $30 million and take five years or more, according to Executive Director Gram Slaton;

– Demolition and reconstruction of an expanded Aspen Fire District main station, on the current site of the firehouse on Hopkins Avenue, which is to begin this spring and take approximately two years. The plan also calls for redevelopment and expansion to two floors of the popular Aspen Thrift Shop, next door to the firehouse. The project is approved and is being paid for with part of a $14 million bond passed by voters in 2006, some of which also was spent to build a new fire substation at the Aspen Business Center;

– The relocation of the Aspen Art Museum to either a new building that would replace the old youth center, or some remodeled version of the youth center building, located at the eastern edge of Galena Plaza and next to the Pitkin County Jail. The new or remodeled building, according to the city’s special projects manager, Ben Gagnon, also is being eyed for relocation of the elevator and stairwell for the nearby Rio Grande Parking Garage, to accommodate widening of the pedestrian stairway leading from Galena Plaza down to Rio Grande Place and creation of better pedestrian access along the Galena Street Extension. This plan includes the proposal to expand the parking garage to the east, underneath the proposed site of the new art museum.

– The redevelopment of the city-owned parking lots between the Rio Grande Parking Garage and Rio Grande Park, possibly as affordable housing, “neighborhood commercial” spaces for locally serving businesses, or a performing arts facility of some kind;

– Adding on to the top of the Rio Grande Parking Garage itself, perhaps for the relocation of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association offices and Visitors Center from its current home at the northern base of the parking garage, or for government offices or a civic meeting hall to be shared by Aspen and Pitkin County. Other potential meeting hall locations include the, 27,500-square-foot Zupancis property, just east of the Courthouse Plaza.

– Reconfiguration of the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District’s offices and other facilities along the Roaring Fork River (adjacent to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies), including the expansion of the facility’s affordable housing from nine to 14 units.

Gagnon, a central city figure in the Civic Master Plan process, said there are no square footage numbers or dollar figures attached to the CMP so far, because it remains highly conceptual. Such cost and size details will come later, he said, after the public reaction to the plans is known and future directions have been mapped out.

Also under way are planning efforts for a variety of housing projects in the Aspen area, projects that promise to be extensive and expensive.

“We’re talking in excess of $200 million,” said Bentley Henderson, assistant city manager at Aspen City Hall. “Of course, that includes land costs.”

Phases two and three of the Burlingame Ranch neighborhood, between the Maroon Creek Club golf course and the Aspen Business Center, are expected to cost between $50 million and $60 million, depending on when construction begins and how fast costs rise, said Henderson. The pending phases would add 116 homes to the 120 already finished, and are expected to be completed by 2011.

Another large project, not even in the early planning stages yet, is the BMC West parcel, which the city recently purchased for a record $18.2 million and which Henderson said is likely to ultimately cost some $80 million, including land costs, to develop.

Other housing projects are on the drawing boards, including plans for infill projects in town, a small parcel on Castle Creek Road next to the Marolt seasonal housing complex, and possibly adding second-story apartments to both the Red Brick and Yellow Brick buildings along Hallam Street.

To accomplish all this, the city has hired a new affordable housing project manager, and staff members have been directed to kick the planning into high gear to get an overall plan to City Council by later this month. These housing plans are expected to involve cooperation with other governmental and quasi-governmental entities, from the Aspen School District to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and Aspen Valley Hospital. The Aspen Music Festival and School may also take part.

All this talk is expected to lead to a financing question for voters on the November general election ballot.

Also in the plans are major projects at Aspen Valley Hospital and at the Aspen Music School campus, both on Castle Creek Road.

The hospital, which pulls in approximately $2 million per year in property tax revenues and gets the rest of its income from fees for services, is working on a multiyear improvements plan that would expand the building from its current size of around 70,000 square feet to a robust 200,000 square feet and could cost in the $100 million range.

Central to the planning is the proposed construction of a multilevel underground parking garage on the north side of the current hospital. Phase one of the larger plan, construction of a new obstetrics wing, began last year, and the next phase is not expected to begin until fall 2008.

Also anticipated for later this year or 2009 is the beginning of the expansion of the Music School campus, a little farther up Castle Creek Road than the hospital and wedged at the bottom of a deep gorge at the base of Shadow Mountain. This is not a government project but officials have expressed concern that, if the hospital and music school projects get under way at the same time, the traffic and other construction-related issues could create problems for locals.

The plan is to redevelop the aging campus, which was donated to the nonprofit Music Associates of Aspen and for decades has been home every summer to the Aspen Music School and every winter to the Aspen Country Day School.

The redeveloped campus, estimated to cost between $50 million and $70 million, will feature 10 new buildings, including a rehearsal hall that will double as a Country Day School gymnasium. The plan will more than double the amount of built space, from 50,000 square feet to approximately 106,000 square feet.

This catalog of developments being planned or undertaken by local governments is by no means complete. Every entity surveyed for this report had other projects in its plans, maintenance programs covering buildings, roads and other facilities, and other irons in other fires.

And while this listing is not absolute evidence that government is the single “biggest developer in Aspen,” as some are fond of saying, it does provide data that local taxpayers can cite when they lament the fact that something seems always to be under construction somewhere, by someone, in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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