No decision made, though city office project moves forward

Aspen City Council on Monday approved a real estate contract for property at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. for municipal office space. The current building, which used to house the Aspen Daily News, will be torn down and redeveloped. It is located across the street from City Hall, which could create a concentrated city campus in the downtown core.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

The Aspen City Council bought itself a bit of time Monday in its quest to build or buy new city office space, while also eliminating one of four options for the proposed project.

The five members of the board voted unanimously to enter into a contract to buy a redeveloped building across the street from City Hall as well as the second floor of the neighboring building.

City officials now have to the end of the week to finalize that contract, and then 30 more days to ponder the deal, said City Attorney Jim True. The 30-day “due diligence” period allows the city to pull out of the deal with no penalty if issues arise.

“There’s no downside to (tentatively approving the new deal),” Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said.

The vote effectively kills a previous contract with developer Mark Hunt to buy just the building across the street at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. for $23 million, a deal that didn’t provide enough office space for the city.

Instead, the basic parameters of the new contract include that $23 million for the same building, another $9.5 million for the 5,500-square-foot second floor of the building next door at 204 S. Galena St. and $12.5 million to renovate the current City Hall building.

Total cost of that deal — which would provide about 57,500 square feet of city office space — would be $51.3 million, according to city estimates. Hunt owns both the 517 E. Hopkins Ave. building and the one next door at 204 S. Galena St.

That deal with Hunt also offers a discounted rate for the City Hall renovation because it envisions using Hunt’s preferred builder. The previous deal for just the 517 E. Hopkins Ave. building assumed a $15.8 million City Hall renovation, which is a $3.3 million reduction from the contract tentatively approved Monday.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein didn’t like the renovation discount, however, which he said he “certainly cannot support” without an open bidding process.

“I don’t see how you would have a one-source bid for redoing that building,” he said.

Further, Hauenstein said that while he believes the office space solution tentatively approved by the council Monday provides “a workable solution,” he would prefer an option now encumbered by lawsuits. That option would put all city offices under one roof in new buildings at or near the space formerly occupied by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association across from Rio Grande Park.

“The one-roof solution is a good one,” Hauenstein said. “It could be a legacy bulding.”

That location is near the Pitkin County Courthouse, the Pitkin County Jail, the new Pitkin County Administration and Sheriff’s building, the Pitkin County Library and the new Aspen Police Department building, he said, making it possible to create a sort of civic campus.

He said he would like to see both that solution and the one approved Monday be put to voters. Hauenstein also said he worried about entering into a contract with Hunt, who he called one of the biggest developers and landowners in Aspen.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins also said she favored the one-roof solution, which would provide 74,600 square feet of office space and cost $47.9 million if construction could begin soon. Mullins said she also liked the idea of a civic campus and does not think the downtown core area is the appropriate location for offices. “I really have an issue putting offices downtown” at the expense of retail and restaurants, she said, noting that Monday’s tentative solution takes away half a block of area that could be used for those businesses.

In addition, much of the office space under the solution tentatively approved Monday would be in the basement, which Mullins said was “deadly” and “really tough” on employees. Finally, she said the extra office space called for in the one-roof, Galena Plaza solution would allow the city to provide adequate space for perhaps the next 50 years.

Skadron said he preferred a modified option of the plan favored by Mullins and Hauenstein that keeps City Hall in its current, historic location. Under that plan, the city would construct a smaller office building at Galena Plaza — 40,000 square feet — and also continue to use City Hall, also known as the Armory.

Skadron said he wouldn’t support a solution that doesn’t continue to depend on the Armory as the center of Aspen’s city government.

Still, Skadron, Mullins and Hauenstein all said they liked aspects of the plan tentatively approved Monday and could possibly go along with it.

Councilman Bert Myrin also said he preferred that plan because it would use space that is already developed or would be developed anyway regardless of whether the city decides to buy 517 E. Hopkins Ave. In fact, Myrin said he’d support closing on the contract for 517 E. Hopkins Ave. and entering into a new contract for the 204 S. Galena St. building next door.

Councilman Adam Frisch was less clear on the option he supports. He said he would support the deal approved Monday, though he wants more information about it. He also said he wants more information about how much it would cost the city to maintain the Armory building if the city completely decamps from it and moves to the one-roof solution.

That solution, which has already been approved by the council, is on hold because of two lawsuits challenging it filed by Aspen residents Steven Goldberg and Marcia Goshorn. Those two did not attend Monday’s meeting, though a former third plaintiff in the cases, Toni Kronberg, did.

Frisch repeatedly asked if Kronberg would encourage the two plaintiffs to drop their lawsuits if the city agreed to allow residents to vote on the project options. Kronberg finally said the suits would not be withdrawn until after any vote took place.

Kronberg later said she misspoke and that the suits would be withdrawn once the city allowed the issues on to the ballot.

Hauenstein repeatedly termed the lawsuits as “obstructionist” and said Kronberg’s statement that they would only be withdrawn after a vote was “unconscionable.”

Skadron also had choice words for the suits.

“These lawsuits are nothing more than playing to people’s anger over development,” he said.