Aspen officials ponder next move after judge rules in city’s favor on municipal building

A redeveloped building at 517 E. Hopkins Ave., where it's proposed that City of Aspen offices be located on the second floor and basement, and retail on the street level.
Courtesy rendering

A judge’s ruling this week thickens the plot on the saga of whether the city of Aspen should move forward with its controversial municipal office project — or buy turnkey space from a private developer.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said Friday that the ruling by District Court Judge John Neiley favors the city enough to convince him to pursue building at least 37,500 square feet of office space at Rio Grande Place and Galena Plaza.

“The first thing (the judge’s ruling) does is make me happy,” he said of the latest move in the lawsuit levied by two Aspen residents pushing for a public vote on the city’s project.

“It doesn’t clear the road,” Hauenstein said, “but it makes it accessible.”

Hauenstein is in favor of the Rio Grande/Galena Plaza project and prefers that it be even larger so the Armory, which serves as City Hall, can be used for community events.

The larger office building is called the “one roof” solution and was considered by the council earlier this week, along with other options.

However, what the majority of council chose Monday was entering into a contract with developer Mark Hunt to buy 26,942 square feet in two buildings he owns on Hopkins Avenue and Galena Street for $32.5 million.

Hunt would develop those spaces at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. and 204 S. Galena St. into offices at the city’s specification — up to $100 a square foot.

That deal with Hunt also offers a discounted rate for a planned City Hall renovation because it envisions using Hunt’s preferred builder. City officials had estimated $15.8 million for the project, but it could be $3.3 million cheaper outsourcing it to Hunt, according to the pending contract.

The city is in a 30-day “due diligence” period, which allows the government to pull out of the deal with no penalty if issues arise.

The deal with Hunt was seen as an alternative to the Rio Grande/Galena Plaza project because of its uncertainty.

Now with the court’s ruling in the city’s favor, council has more to weigh when considering its next move.

Mayor Steve Skadron said he’s swayed to consider the offices at Rio Grande/Galena Plaza more given the court’s ruling.

“Because it’s a good project,” he wrote via text. “Each option has merit. I’ve supported the smaller Galena/Armory solution but will listen to the 517/204 option.

“We’ll take this back to council and see if it changes anything.”

City Attorney Jim True said Friday that if the plaintiffs appeal, waiting for a ruling from the Colorado Court of Appeals could take months, if not longer. And that is something council will have to balance against its options, he noted.

“It does change the dynamic to some degree,” True said.

City officials recognize that having the case drag on in the high court will increase the cost of the Rio Grande/Galena Plaza project and delay providing adequate working space for employees.

The project is currently budgeted at $22.6 million but local construction costs are estimated to escalate 10 percent annually.

“If they appeal it, it could take awhile,” True said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”