City of Aspen considering new office space location across street, connected by tunnel
Plans for an alternative location for new city office space in downtown Aspen have surfaced, and it includes the government taking over a portion of two buildings and connecting them with the armory via a tunnel under Hopkins Avenue.
Aspen City Council members and some city staffers have seen the conceptual plans, which have been given to them by developer Mark Hunt, whose companies own 517 E. Hopkins Ave. and 204 Galena St.
As proposed, the city would buy basement and second-floor space in a redeveloped building where the Aspen Daily News used to be located. More office space could be converted in the building next door. It would be a turnkey development for the city to purchase.
An underground tunnel would connect to the current City Hall armory building via Conner Park. Both the armory and the park would get renovated.
Hunt declined Wednesday to comment on the proposal.
Councilman Bert Myrin said he was first shown the plans last month and has had subsequent discussions with Hunt since then.
Myrin said he favors using a building almost adjacent to the armory that is going to be built anyway, because it reduces the city’s overall impact to the community.
“I’m 100 percent on board with something that doesn’t include adding new space,” he said. “This town does not need 30,000 or 40,000 square feet of development.”
The majority of council passed an ordinance in 2017 that approved a 37,500-square-foot new building between Rio Grande Park and Galena Plaza, attached to the parking garage. It was estimated at that time to cost $22 million but construction costs continue to increase so that amount is likely higher.
But the city has had to put the project on hold as a result of two lawsuits levied by citizens who want to put it to a referendum and let voters decide.
The city has lost on two counts in one of the cases, and earlier this month filed a motion arguing that petitioners didn’t have enough valid signatures last May to put it on the ballot.
The plaintiffs, Aspen residents Steve Goldenberg and Marcia Goshorn — through their Denver attorney, Jordan Porter — have until June 15 to respond to the city’s motion.
Council discussed the case Tuesday night in executive session, as well as Hunt’s proposal, sources said. The closed-door meeting lasted for about four hours; the public portion of council’s regular meeting lasted for an hour and a half.
City Attorney Jim True would only confirm that one aspect of the lawsuit was discussed, along with other unrelated issues.
“My marching orders are to pursue the legal case,” he said Wednesday. “We are preparing to move forward.”
Mayor Steve Skadron refrained from commenting specifically on the latest plans for the Hopkins Avenue building but said he’s seen some “pretty pictures.”
He said it ultimately should be up to voters to decide between the options, if in fact Hunt’s proposal is viable. It’s important for the community to decide if a higher price tag is worth whatever plan is put before them.
“If other options are coming to the surface then a question like this I would support for the community to decide,” Skadron said.
Councilman Adam Frisch said given the legal case, it’s prudent for the city to look for office space elsewhere.
“Yes, we are re-evaluating … the city needs to explore other options other than the Galena Plaza option,” he said. “One good thing about the Aspen Daily News building is that building is going to get built anyway but there are other pros and cons, too.”
In the cost analysis for the 517 Hopkins Ave. plan, it shows between 50,000 and 60,00 square feet, with higher costs depending on three development programs.
Myrin argued that the costs are rising on the Rio Grande building every year that it’s not built because the escalation of construction prices.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein paused for a moment when asked if he had seen the plans. He then said he was bound by confidentiality and not at liberty to discuss.
But he spoke generally about the notion of more city office space being needed because municipal operations have outgrown the current City Hall, and the government is spending money on renting space.
“City Council believes there is a need for city offices,” he said, confirming it is looking at alternatives. “We need consolidated office space as soon as possible.”
Myrin said he supports more office space but not at the expense of a new building that creates an impact on the community.
“When I think of success I think about someone who was gone for 10 years and when they come back, it doesn’t look different,” he said, adding that the Hopkins plan emulates that most.
Councilwoman Ann Mullins didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Frisch said he understands the public may not have an appetite for more development but it will have to decide collectively on what it wants if other options emerge and what price. And that may require a public vote.
But he knows one thing is for certain: “We need a place to put people,” he said. “I’m very supportive getting to the punch line quickly.”
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