New building for The Cottage preschool will have to wait

District tables building overhaul in favor of modular solution amid rising costs

The Aspen Cottage at Aspen School District on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen School District will table plans for a new building for The Cottage preschool and child care center and administrative offices due to the rising costs of other projects funded by a $114 million bond designated for facilities work and staff housing.

Instead, the district will opt for a “refresh” of existing modular classrooms and the addition of two more modular buildings, plus some exterior improvements and playground upgrades, according to an update from Superintendent David Baugh at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting. The board approved the change at the meeting.

The original proposal for a new Cottage and administrative building would have cost around $20 million; that total made it the largest facilities-related expense funded by the bond. (Housing is the only project area that exceeds that, with a target budget of about $46 million.)

The modular buildings will cost a sliver of that, with building costs projected at around $241,000 for the structures. With the other refreshes and updates, the “worst-case scenario” total wouldn’t exceed $750,000 for the entire project, Baugh told the board.

Baugh said the district will “redeploy” the funds originally designated for the new building toward other spending in academic areas, deferred maintenance, net zero initiatives and housing.

“That $20 million will disappear really fast,” Baugh said.

Several factors prompted the change of plans.

Inflation already put the kibosh on “nice to haves” that the district was hoping to fund with a $20 million discretionary fund that now must be allocated to the district’s existing wants and needs, according to an update at the Feb. 9 Board of Education meeting. Now some of those wants — like the Cottage building — will have to adapt, too, as costs rise 20% or more.

“Had we not run into 20%-plus inflation, we would not be having this conversation today,” Baugh said.

Deferred maintenance projects funded by the bond are proving to be larger in scope and in cost than originally projected. Existing facilities need more maintenance at the same time that supply chain challenges and inflation are making that work more expensive. Also, some facilities work that was supposed to be funded by a 2005 bond still has not been completed and needs to be addressed.

Among the potential growing maintenance needs: The district is awaiting further evaluation and guidance from structural engineers on the floor of the Skier Dome, which is temporarily closed until that guidance comes in.

The district initially brought in engineers to assess the floor’s ability to carry the load of a new climbing wall. The firm that conducted that assessment expressed concerns about the floor and noted the gym’s older construction; district officials decided to close the facility “out of an abundance of caution” until engineers come back with more details on the overall strength of the floor, Baugh said in a phone call after the meeting.

With all those factors in mind, “I think we have to table (the Cottage project) for the time being,” Baugh said in the meeting.

In the meantime, adding two modular buildings to the existing Cottage facilities will allow two preschool classes to move out of their current temporary classroom space located in the District Theater. That space could then once again serve performing arts purposes.

The modular option will allow the district to “maintain and maybe get a slight increase” in Cottage enrollment, Baugh said. He said he had informed the Cottage’s interim director Darilynn Cairncross of the change in plans but had not yet presented the news to all staff there.

The initial concept for a new Cottage also would have established new district administrative offices, and space currently occupied by the administration could be used by Aspen High School.

Some shuffling around and “repurposing” will happen to grant some space to the high school, Baugh said.

Bob Daniel, a local developer who is part of the owners’ representative team for the bond, said he views the modular option as a “holistic solution” to the needs of the Cottage amid the budget constraints.

The goal is to implement the modular buildings by the start of the next school year, though the opening date could end up closer to Oct. 1 with supply chain issues.

The plan is far from what the district originally had in mind when voters approved a $94 million bond in 2020 and when high investor demand, the district’s high rating and good interest rates brought the total to $114 million in 2021. But planners are also now navigating a construction world that looks a lot different than it did two years ago, Baugh noted.

“Our situation has changed from when we did the bond offering. … The landscape has changed,” he said.