Is public behind an expansion of the Wheeler?
August 27, 2008
ASPEN ” The newest plan for renovating and expanding the Wheeler Opera House onto an adjacent lot suggests adding an upscale-to-fine dining restaurant next to Bentley’s; creating a smaller theater, rehearsal space and offices for local arts organizations; and possibly creating on-site housing for employees and artists.
But at a work session Tuesday, the Aspen City Council agreed it isn’t ready to provide direction for the next stage of the project until it is convinced that city arts organizations are on board ” and ultimately, that the public is. And even then, several council members worried that the city may already be up to its ears in projects.
“I think we should accomplish some things before we start something new. We’ve got plenty of things going on,” said Councilman J. E. De Vilbiss.
“I don’t think that there is a sufficient consensus in town that something should be done,” said Councilman Jack Johnson. “And I think citizens are sick and tired of construction… I also agree with [Brian O’Neil, Wheeler Advisory Board member] that there is no good time.”
“Before we draw up plans … we have to think about how we’re going to drum up public support,” said Mayor Mick Ireland. But he also noted that he wasn’t ready to put the project off for another 25 years.
Wheeler Executive Director Gram Slaton noted that he wasn’t asking to build the project yet ” he was just asking for direction to move forward with the planning process. He worried about losing the momentum gained so far.
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Ultimately, council asked Slaton to have local arts organizations sign a letter of support for the project, and then bring the heads of those organizations to a council work session.
“I think we’re basically asking you to pack the room” said Johnson.
“There’s a lot of harm done if you go to the voters and lose,” said Ireland.
On Jan. 29, the Aspen City Council gave Slaton unanimous approval to move forward with plans to build a sister facility on empty property adjacent to the opera house.
As proposed on Jan. 29, the new building would be larger and shorter than the existing Wheeler Opera House, but could have a basement at least 40 feet deep.
The project could cost as much as $30 million, if expansion occurs within the next three to five years, Slaton has said. That projected cost is exactly the projected overage of the Wheeler’s portion of the Real Estate Transfer Tax, though the Wheeler won’t see that full amount until 2018.
Earlier this year, an independent consultant facilitated three public meetings to receive feedback on the Wheeler’s plan to build a second facility. The meetings, attended by over 90 members of the public, confirmed the community’s desire for rehearsal space and a smaller theater, among other things, according to Slaton.
The meetings also found a strong desire among the public that street-level space be utilized for retail purposes, like restaurants, according to Slaton. He also noted that while many meeting attendees were not “particularly concerned” about employee or talent housing on site, housing remains a deep concern for those who work in the arts community.
In the intervening months, the Wheeler also hired a restaurant firm, San Diego-based Profitable Food Facilities (PFF), to explore the city’s directive to maintain affordable eating and drinking establishments on site. Currently, Valley Fine Art and Bentley’s, a restaurant and pub, operate out of the Wheeler Opera House.
PFF recommended that the city invest between $300,000 and $600,000 in renovating the kitchen in the Wheeler. According to Slaton, it argued that a restaurant committed to serving “affordable” food ” as council had requested ” couldn’t be saddled with the investment needed to renovate the existing kitchen. Slaton also argued that city investment would ensure the quality of work and ensure a quick turnaround, should a renter decide to leave.
Slaton also said PFF noted that the existing kitchen is too small. A proper renovation would double its size, inevitably encroaching substantially on the current Valley Fine Art space.
To solve the problem, the Wheeler’s staff and board suggested moving the box office to the new building, and creating a restaurant space with one big kitchen serving a both a pub-style restaurant and a finer dining establishment. It would also include a flexible retail space roughly the size of the current Valley Fine Art.
Such a plan would mean the Bentley’s renovation, planned for this fall, wouldn’t take place until the expansion is completed.
Slaton has suggested that if the full expansion and renovation is completed, the city should open any new and renovated spaces to a bid process . Current leaseholders pay city-subsidized rent, and Slaton said he has been contacted by many business owners interested in the space.