Obermeyer infill project starting to take shape | AspenTimes.com

Obermeyer infill project starting to take shape

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It will take a lot of free-market housing and some tall buildings to redevelop a funky corner of Aspen in a way that successfully retains the local, community-serving businesses that operate there now.

But, just how much and just how tall? Those are questions a local task force assigned to design a palatable project are grappling with as their conceptual plans for the pocket of buildings along Rio Grande Place and East Bleeker Street evolve.

By late last month, the latest iteration of the project called for two four-story buildings and two structures with a partial fifth floor. In all, the 200,000 or so square feet of above-grade space included 44,000 net square feet of affordable space for service/industrial tenants, plus 40 free-market units and space for perhaps a dozen two-bedroom units of affordable housing.

Below-grade parking for 272 vehicles – at least 100 of which would serve the city – and a new, enclosed recycling center to replace the existing one off Rio Grande Place were also part of the plan.

“I’m in a state of shock right now,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud last week, after a recap by a team of consultants working with the task force. “I think there are going to be some hard questions coming from City Council at this point.”

Her reaction isn’t unusual, according to Ben Gagnon, spokesman for the project, dubbed Obermeyer Place.

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Once consultants explain the costs involved in subsidizing affordable commercial space, and the benefits of holding onto a neighborhood where local-serving shops can continue to operate, people come around, he said.

“Everybody asks this. My God, you have a ton of free market. Why do you have all that free market?” said Steve Szymanski, a financial consultant for property owner Klaus Obermeyer.

Rebuilding the affordable commercial space that is there now requires about a $10 million subsidy, he explained. “That is a huge challenge for us,” Szymanski said.

Even with 40 free-market units, the numbers still weren’t working, he said. The design team headed back to the drawing board and presented a new idea to the task force last week.

The developers could build 20-plus units of affordable housing if they could all be sold for the cost of their construction, leaving no subsidy for the developers to swallow, Szymanski said. The units could be sold, for example, to other developers who need housing to fulfill the requirements of a project elsewhere. They could even go to local workers who can afford the price tag, one task force member suggested.

“We would be able to sell them at our cost, not our loss,” Szymanski said.

That would leave just the affordable commercial space for the project to subsidize.

When the task force meets again June 19, designers with Cottle Graybeal Yaw Architects, who are part of the development team, will return with a new iteration of the conceptual plans. It will reflect the boost in affordable housing and some number of free-market units that could make the bottom line work.

Obermeyer Place is located in the city’s service/commercial/industrial, or SCI, zoning district. The redevelopment has been put forth as an “infill” project – one that allows the revitalization of aging buildings while providing things like affordable housing and, in this case, a place for SCI tenants.

“My original vision was it would boost the SCI space and was a way to boost affordable housing,” Klanderud said. “My concern is, will the redevelopment give the city, now and in the future, what we want there?”

Despite her reservations, the mayor said she is excited about the project’s potential.

She is a member of a planning group appointed by the City Council, which works under the ungainly name of the Obermeyer COWOP Task Force.

Klaus Obermeyer is the founder and owner of Sport Obermeyer, a skiwear designer and manufacturer. He owns several buildings in the project area, where businesses like Auto Tech, Aspen Painting and Aspen Ski Service Center have leased space for years at affordable rates. His hopes to improve the area, but save a place for those tenants, spurred the planning that is under way.

The COWOP process was established for use when the city is both an applicant and the body that must approve a development. Projects are eligible when they are reasonably necessary for the Convenience and Welfare of the Public – hence the acronym.

The Obermeyer Place conceptual plans encompass Obermeyer’s property, various pieces of city-owned land, and buildings owned by Bill Murphy and Gailen Smith.

The Louis Zupancis property on Main Street is also within the planning boundary, although its redevelopment is not part of the current plan. The city has, however, expressed interest in acquiring the Zupancis parcel, according to Klanderud.

The task force hopes to take a formal development proposal to the City Council by the end of August. Use of city land will require a vote in November that could allow Obermeyer Place to go forward next year, assuming all the players in the ambitious and complex development can put together a workable project that wins city and community support.

Then there’s the financing of a project that is expected to top $75 million, according to Szymanski.

“I think the city will have some financial questions – what the city’s share will be,” Klanderud said.