No appetite yet for new restaurant space in Rio Grande building |

No appetite yet for new restaurant space in Rio Grande building

Space formerly occupied by Taster’s Pizza a long way off from being occupied again, Aspen city officials say

The previous space for Taster’s in Aspen will remain vacant for potentially another three years across from Rio Grande Park. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

In a town where there are fewer and fewer options to get an affordable meal out, it could be as long as another three years before the restaurant space across from Rio Grande Park reopens to the public, according to city of Aspen officials.

The space, formerly occupied by Taster’s Pizza, is owned by the city and was shuttered in 2019 to make way for a remodel of the Rio Grande building and the new City Hall next door.

City Manager Sara Ott said last week that Aspen City Council earlier this year discussed prioritizing different properties the municipal government owns in conjunction with the discussion about the renovation of the armory building, which used to serve as City Hall.

“The priorities are the completion of the 79 Burlingame III units, the Armory community use, design and construction, and the old powerhouse historic preservation,” Ott said via email. “Each of these projects needs to move along much further before capacity opens up to take on the community restaurant space, or alternatively, the council choose to delay one of these other projects to move the community restaurant space to sooner.”

What’s more is that there is no money budgeted to finish the restaurant space for a future tenant, which will have to be decided through a request for proposals process.

The city’s asset management plan has $7.5 million for the armory renovations and preservation efforts for 2022 and 2023, and that might not be enough.

“The $7.5 million will be tough in the current economic conditions and construction inflation occurring in the valley,” Ott said.

The city is currently going through a public engagement process asking the community what it wants the armory building to be converted into, with the top uses so far in a survey identifying casual dining, multi-purpose space and nonprofit services.

The city’s asset management plan also has set aside $3.5 million for the old powerhouse, anticipating design work starting this year and construction beginning in 2024.

It currently houses some city departments and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, the latter of which will move to a renovated armory building.

The powerhouse work is scheduled after the old City Hall is done, so ACRA and its visitor center can remain in the building until the new community-centered armory is done.

The powerhouse, located off North Mill Street, eventually will house four city departments, since the new City Hall comes up 6,000 square feet short in accommodating employees in the IT, special events, capital asset and transportation departments.

Ott was unable to offer a firm timeline on the restaurant space in the Rio Grande building, as it depends on the extent of the remodel and historic restoration that the community and council chooses for the armory.

“The building is being nearly completely reprogrammed from office space to community use, and that may affect the timeline,” she said. “Additionally, there needs to be a funding discussion.”

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she plans to look into it further and explore how the space could be opened sooner and look to bring additional funds into the city’s overall capital plans.

While the restaurant space is not move-in ready, the city invested in upgrading the electrical and ventilation system in anticipation of a new tenant.

However, the placement of additional features or amenities and construction of restrooms in the space will be done jointly with the tenant as part of the contract process.

Rob Schober, the city’s capital asset director, said the space has been cleaned up, and much of the restaurant equipment is still there.

Taster’s was an affordable option for the public because of the discounted rent the city offered. The pizzeria had been operating on a month-to-month lease with the city since 2012 and paying a fraction of the rent — $1,350 a month plus triple net — that downtown retail space commands. Taster’s had been in the Rio Grande building since 2008.

When and if the space is returned to a restaurant use, the process to select a tenant could be drawn out, as evidenced by the months-long selection of tenants in the city-owned Wheeler Opera House, which put the now defunct Justice Snow and the current Public House on the street level space in the historic building in recent years.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein was part of that process.

“Both of them were lengthy discussions and took a lot of energy,” he said. “I know that will be the case if we put a private business in a public space.”

Hauenstein said city staff need to focus on the armory and finishing the work on the current residential development and short-term rental moratorium before tackling the restaurant space.

“For me, the armory is more important,” he said.