Consultants: Second Wheeler facility not feasible on downtown Aspen parcel
Preliminary findings from a consultant hired by the Wheeler Opera House show that it is nearly impossible to build a second performance facility next door on an open space parcel.
“From an architecture and engineering aspect, the space has some challenges,” said Alex Keen of Keen Independent Research, a Denver-based consulting firm. “It would be extremely difficult and expensive, and operationally challenging.”
Keen was hired along with Theatre Projects, one of the largest theater consultants in the country, to examine the feasibility of a performance space that would be connected to the Wheeler.
The study came at the direction of Aspen City Council over a year ago amid discussion about whether to repurpose around $1 million a year from the Wheeler fund for specific projects related to the arts and culture segment of the community.
The Wheeler has roughly $32 million in an endowment and is funded through the 0.5% real estate transfer tax that voters originally approved in 1979.
Council agreed in May 2018 that the intent of voters was for the tax to someday pay for more performance space.
But it likely won’t be next door to the Wheeler for a variety of reasons, including that building a second facility would force the opera house to close for as long as three years.
“It’s just not feasible to build there without impacting the Wheeler’s operations,” said Gena Buhler, executive director of the opera house.
The Wheeler’s passenger and service elevators would have to serve the new building. That means they’d have to be removed and then relocated, which would require a variance from the city’s land-use code, according to Buhler.
A second facility would negatively affect the loading area for the operation, as well as the egress for people coming in and out.
Then there is the problem of what lurks below the open space parcel, which is jam-packed with utility and power lines and a large water line running down the middle, which would have to be rerouted.
There have been numerous studies in the past for the potential of a second facility on that land but they were always looked at as a separate building.
“They never brought in theater consultants to see how they are two buildings connected and how they function,” Buhler said.
The consultants presented their findings last month to the Wheeler board of directors, who were taken aback by what they determined.
“The board was shocked,” Buhler said, adding that some members wanted to look at other locations for performance space, believing the community needs another 100- to 200-seat facility.
Buhler told the board at its Aug. 7 meeting that she’d rather use the remaining money of the $42,000 contract with the consultants, which includes the Florida-based firm, Venue Consulting, to further examine the Wheeler’s 20-year master plan and how much money is necessary to keep the historic building operating.
That examination also will consider if there are funds available that can be used to support other arts and culture endeavors in the community, Buhler said.
Venue Consulting also will provide an estimate of how much a second facility would cost to build and operate. It could be so expensive that it would exhaust the endowment fund, Buhler said.
All of that information, plus more, is scheduled to be presented to City Council in September.
Buhler said she also will float a “Wheeler Plaza” concept by council. That involves transforming the parcel into a community space where there is rotating art installations with a nod to the opera house’s history.
“We’ll collaborate with the parks department and make something cool and beautiful,” she said.