Aspen officials walk back pedestrian mall plan

Anticipating that private development will happen on nearly three-quarters of downtown Aspen’s pedestrian malls in the coming years, the city’s elected officials decided Tuesday to continue plans for an overhaul of the three-block brick surface.

After more than a year on ice, conceptual design plans to overhaul the malls on Hyman and Cooper avenues and Mill Street are moving forward to schematic design.

But Aspen City Council members cautioned that just because they support schematic design does not mean that the malls will be ripped up anytime soon.

But detailed plans will establish, at a minimum, what building owners and developers will be expected to design their projects to, including infrastructure beneath the surface and what grade their structures will need to be at.

“One of the reasons we got into this is that a lot of buildings did get sold and development was imminent,” said Councilwoman Ann Mullins, who is in her third year of a four-year term.

Besides trying to time improving the condition of the aging malls with future development, underground utilities and ADA access are driving what will be a very expensive project for the city.

City Manager Sara Ott told council she couldn’t even guess what the price tag is at this conceptual stage and it’s not in the municipal government’s five-year capital plan at this point.

The mall’s surface is more than 40 years old and some of the underground infrastructure hasn’t been touched in six decades, according to Michelle Bonfils Thibeault, the city’s project manager.

What’s more is the 320,000 bricks originally laid down in 1976 are deteriorating and need to be replaced, even though there are fewer than 30,000 left and will only last a few more years, according to Thibeault.

A majority of current council members said Tuesday during a work session that they want to pare down what a previous council signed off on in March of 2018, which was developed and presented by landscape architecture firm Design Workshop after years of public engagement and feedback.

“Let’s modify some of the idealism for realism,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said.

The bathrooms near Wagner Park don’t need to be moved, and new water features and a shelter for skis are not necessary, she said.

“I don’t want to diminish the great work here,” Richards said, adding that she wants to keep the malls in their historic state as much as possible and approach the project in a minimalist way. “I think some things are wish list. … It’s been said before that we don’t build church for Christmas Sunday.”

Council members agreed that they want to keep the malls as an urban park and honor their historic elements by not changing too much.

“The malls really work now,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein, noting that three different City Councils have looked at the mall project. “I’d like to keep it the way it is now.”

Elected officials also voiced their concern for businesses on the mall that will be impacted by a years-long project and phasing construction will likely be necessary.

Design Workshop had refined its scope of work after the project was in a holding pattern for so long; council agreed to a $1 million schematic design contract rather than a previous administration’s $3.8 million plan.

Design Workshop will take council’s comments into account as it develops schematic design in the coming months.


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