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Leak spurs flood of ideas as city

Aspen Times Staff Report

A leak in the Rio Grande parking garage has started a flood. A flood of ideas, that is.

The need to fix the leak has spawned a broad discussion about the future needs of a variety of government and nonprofit arts facilities that have been collectively dubbed Aspen’s “civic center.”

The name is something of a misnomer, conceded city planner Chris Bendon, who’s spearheading an effort to create a long-range master plan for the civic center. He has been battling misperceptions ever since he picked the label.

“People start to envision that big glass box at the edge of town,” he said.

Now he’s calling it the “civic master plan” and mulling a new name – the “community campus” master plan.

“I can’t really come up with a name,” Bendon said. “Probably the best thing is, it doesn’t have a name. It’s just part of the town.”

Whatever you call it, it all started with the leaky garage. Water is coming from the Rio Grande plaza above the garage and pouring into a sensitive spot – the parking facility’s electrical box.

“Fixing the leak is a pretty expensive and complicated endeavor,” Bendon said. “If you’re going to be putting that kind of money into a facility, what else could you accomplish?”

Discussions about the potential for some new facility in the plaza have expanded into a master plan for an area that stretches from City Hall north to the Aspen Art Museum. It encompasses the Pitkin County Courthouse and annex, the library, the parking garage and a couple of buildings outside the swath from Galena Street to the Roaring Fork River – namely the Red Brick Arts and Recreation Center and the Wheeler Opera House.

Bendon, working with representatives from each of the facilities and a few citizens, is working on a master plan that will map out the future of the town’s civic center. “New buildings, new uses, new places for stuff to be,” he summed up. It may even include a trolley line where Aspen can put its long-unused trolley cars into use.

Some changes may not come about for a decade or two, but many of the facilities encompassed by the plan cannot maintain their status quo forever, he said.

Bendon rattled off a lengthy list of civic center projects at a joint meeting of the Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners this week: The county will need another courtroom eventually; Theatre in the Park wants a year-round, 250- to 300-seat facility; the Aspen Fire Department wants a fire station on Main Street that offers some housing; the Aspen Chamber Resort Association would like more office space and a visible visitor center; and the third floor at City Hall, which houses both the city and county planning offices, is getting crowded.

Meanwhile, the art museum, located in an out-of-the-way spot near the river, would like to expand at some point, Bendon said. “They don’t have a lot of the walk-in opportunities that they could have in another location,” he said.

And that’s just a partial list.

All of those needs will see discussion during an all-day civic center design charette on Dec. 13 at the Aspen Youth Center. The youth center building itself will be part of the focus. That space will become available when the center relocates to the new Iselin Park recreation complex.

Before the meeting, Bendon wanted to run some assumptions the participants will use by the City Council and the commissioners. He did so this week.

First and foremost is that government offices and nonprofit facilities should remain in the city’s core. “A big glass box on the edge of town is not our vision,” he said. Elected officials agreed.

They also assured Bendon that the Rio Grande Plaza is not sacred space that can’t be reconfigured, though they don’t want it to disappear altogether. They also don’t want a new building on Main Street to shade the plaza from the afternoon sun.

The little-used plaza, between the library and the youth center, could use a boost, Bendon said. “There is significant opportunity to really enliven that space and make it what it really should be,” he said.

“I personally feel this is an area that could be redeveloped,” agreed Commissioner Shellie Harper.

“Less green space might actually serve us better,” added Commissioner Mick Ireland. The existing plaza is too small for recreational uses but too big to be intimate, he said.

Elected officials also told Bendon they have no objection to consideration of the city-owned parking lot below the Community Bank of Aspen as a site for redevelopment, as long as short-term parking is retained there.

Commissioners and the council also had no qualms about redevelopment of the cluster of buildings that currently house a collection of local service industries along Rio Grande Place and Bleeker Street.

That area could contain more business space, housing and parking, said Bendon.

“I agree, that’s very underutilized,” said Commissioner Leslie Lamont.

Bendon said he’ll be back before elected officials in January with an actual master plan, shaped by the discussion at next month’s meeting. Then, he assured commissioners and the council, they can sink their teeth into some specific proposals.

“I don’t want to hear a charette was held and all these decisions are carved in stone,” warned Commissioner Dorothea Farris.


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