Downtown Aspen’s jazz center ready to rock it

When Jim Horowitz got the go-ahead earlier this month from Aspen’s elected officials to create a jazz performance center in the heart of downtown, he looked over his shoulder in City Council chambers wondering what just happened.

“I thought, ‘Did a mosquito just bite me?’” the president and CEO of Jazz Aspen Snowmass said this week. “It happened so quickly … it was one of the funnier moments.”

In a town where land-use approvals are hard to come by without a lot of controversy and public opinion, Horowitz and developer Mark Hunt’s plans sailed through the city approval process.

Under the purview of the city’s all-citizen, seven-member historic preservation commission, which gave unanimous approval in August, the project was subject to “call up” by City Council if it chose to question certain elements of the plan.

But council members Sept. 9 chose not to do that, effectively granting JAS and Hunt a clear path to develop a performing arts center next to and above the historic Red Onion on the Cooper Avenue Mall.

“I tried to have no expectations but was prepared” for questioning from the council and the public at the Sept. 9 meeting, Horowitz said. “You think of what could have happened because there is always uncertainty when you develop in the downtown core.”

The approval came within a year of JAS announcing that it was under contract to purchase the space, located at 416, 420 and 422 E. Cooper Ave. from Hunt for $15 million.

As part of the contract, Hunt will build out the spaces to suit JAS’ needs. The deal closes when the space is complete.

Development next to the Red Onion could have looked much different. Hunt bought the property with the rights to build second and third stories to accommodate a free-market penthouse at a maximum height of 38 feet.

That approval came in before the city banned free-market residential in the core and limited building heights to 28 feet.

With those development rights in hand, Hunt was in a position to make tens of millions of dollars.

But he had a different vision: a live music venue, rehearsal space and educational programming, as well as a gathering area for community organizations and nonprofits.

Hunt has said in the past his “ultimate goal is to connect the town with the people who live here.”

Horowitz said finding a permanent home for JAS has been part of the strategic plan for years but only until recently has the nonprofit organization started to look at downtown properties.

“The Crystal Palace was the original object for our dream,” he said, adding that then the recession hit in 2008 and the building subsequently was sold to Hunt, who is now developing it into a boutique hotel. “We thought there would never be anything like this again.”

In the past couple of years, Horowitz had been shopping different properties in the commercial core but hadn’t found the ideal location.

“We had luck in Mark Hunt calling us,” Horowitz said. “We fell into the right property.”

Hunt, who also owns the Bidwell Building at 434 E. Cooper Ave., which is located next to the property that will serve as the JAS Center’s entrance and photo gallery, envisions connecting the two to support the performance space’s food service.

Home furnishings retailer Restoration Hardware, the future anchor tenant for the redeveloped Bidwell Building, introduced restaurants to its operations four years ago.

Horowitz said the future eatery in Aspen’s Restoration Hardware will offer the food and catering for the JAS Center menu.

This past spring, Horowitz and Hunt’s team worked on the floor plan of the new JAS Center with the Bidwell building in mind.

There will be a shared corridor between 434 and 422 E. Cooper, the latter of which is a former vintage poster shop and will be occupied this winter by Gwyneth Paltrow’s pop-up store, goop.

That building will serve as the entrance to the JAS Center, which will lead to a second-floor lobby and photo gallery.

That space will connect to the second floor of the Red Onion, which will have a lounge and bar that has sightlines to the stage in the adjoining building.

The JAS Center’s main venue area and stage will be in the building located 416 E. Cooper Ave., which currently houses a retail store on the mall level and office on the second floor.

The center will utilize the building’s second floor outdoor terrace that will be open so that people on the mall can enjoy the sounds from above.

Hunt will deliver a shell in the building and it will be up to JAS to finish the interior.

Also in the 9,000-square-foot space is a green room, wine locker, catering kitchen and hangout areas.

The plan is to break ground in April and be open in June 2021.

Horowitz said there are many exciting aspects of the new JAS Center, not the least of which is the photo gallery on the second floor of the entrance.

With more than 45,000 photographs in the JAS archive, plus more from other photographers over the nonprofit’s 29 years, Horowitz said there will be rotating exhibitions focusing on different genres and artists who have performed here, whether it’s blues, funk or rock ’n’ roll, to name a few.

And by digitizing video from some of the more recent stage productions with high-tech light shows, there will be a video wall displaying different concerts.

“It’s an interactive opportunity just like you’d go to a museum and put on headphones,” Horowitz said. “When this gets legs we can really get this off the ground.”