New visitor center: It’s all about location
Aspen voters will decide next month whether a new downtown visitor center and chamber headquarters, handed to the city free of charge, outweighs the objections to its proposed locale.The project’s convoluted history is nearly as confusing as the wording of Referendum 2A, the Nov. 2 ballot measure that would repeal the zoning for the facility. Opponents of the plan must cast a “yes” vote to halt the project; its supporters will be voting “no” to keep the zoning approval intact.New offices for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and the visitor center it operates would be part of a multiuse building, approved by the City Council, for the corner of Main and Galena streets. Five free-market condos and commercial space would also be part of the project.It was the city that first approached property owners Lowell Meyer and Gary Freedman about using the site for a new visitor center as part of a broader “civic center” master plan that looks at the future use of various public properties.And the planning effort was spurred by a leak in the roof of the Rio Grande parking garage. The roof is covered by what’s referred to as the “library plaza” – an area of grass, seating and planters with trees next to the Pitkin County Library, and a stone’s throw from the proposed new visitor center.Since all the landscaping atop the plaza must be removed to repair the roof, the city initiated discussions about what future uses, if any, there might be for the plaza, according to Chris Bendon, city planner.It’s the locationThe council’s approval of the visitor center project earlier this year sparked objections on several fronts, but the most vocal opposition came from owners of the newly renovated Galena Lofts condos, located directly behind the proposed center.A one-story building, as viewed from Main Street, occupies the site now, along with a small piece of open land. A three-story structure, as viewed from Main Street, is proposed. It would block views from many of the Galena Lofts condos.Others have decried the lack of parking in the vicinity of the proposed facility, though six spaces are proposed on Main Street and six more are available next to the building on the dead-end nub of Galena Street. Existing police car parking on Galena would be shifted to spots bordering the plaza, behind the Galena Lofts, meaning the removal of some planter boxes and trees. The landscaping will have to be removed anyway to accommodate the eventual garage roof repair.The site is too congested to add a visitor center to the mix, opponents also contend.But one key objection – its cost to taxpayers – has been nullified. Initially, the city was to spend $1.03 million for the chamber and visitor center space and then lease it to the ACRA, with a projected net cost to the city of about $42,000 annually for 20 years.With opponents to the project collecting signatures to put the project’s approval to a public vote, Meyer and Freedman strategically sweetened the proposal by offering to give the space designated for the ACRA and visitor center to the city at no cost.”This project is something I strongly believed in,” Meyer said at the time. “I decided to put my money where my mouth is.”Owners of the Galena Lofts condos, a group that includes some of the more active members in the campaign to defeat the project at the polls, subsequently sued the city and the developers (see related story).The offer of free space was a smart move, conceded Candy Allen, a spokeswoman for Aspen Concerned Citizens, which is campaigning against the visitor center. But, she added, the drawbacks to the project remain.”I think it’s a terrible place for it because of the traffic and because of the parking,” she said.Allen, whose husband is a plaintiff in the Galena Lofts lawsuit, is quick to acknowledge she has a personal stake in the outcome of the vote, but that most citizens opposed to the project do not.”Obviously, as a property owner at Galena Lofts, we have a definite interest in what goes on there,” she said. But there are “so many other reasons why not to do it. It’s not just a Galena Lofts issue.”The referendum petition that put the zoning approval to a vote next month contains 745 signatures from registered voters, Allen noted.”Those people couldn’t care less about what goes on at Galena Lofts,” she said.From the chamber’s perspective, a visitor center on Main Street makes sense for its increased visibility, according to Hana Pevny, ACRA president. The existing visitor center, tucked into the front of the parking garage, probably sees about a third of the visitors who drive through town, she said. Capturing more of them gives the resort a better chance of turning drive-through visitors into guests who spend a night or two.The new visitor center would have 24-hour lobby access, a direct link to lodging properties for after-hours visitors and public restrooms.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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