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Old cabins hinder plans for new Jewish center

Janet Urquhart
A sketch of the proposed Aspen Jewish Community Center, as seen from Main Street, includes the auditorium/sanctuary on the right, a classroom building on the left (east) and the incorporation of two old cabins. Rendering courtesy Arthur Chabon Architect.
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Plans for an Aspen Jewish Community Center on Main Street remain in limbo until the city and the congregation can agree on what should happen to nine old cabins on the property.After a fourth review Wednesday of conceptual plans for the project by the Historic Preservation Commission, neither HPC members nor the Chabad of Aspen, which wants to build the complex, are sure where the project is headed. Representatives of both sides, however, are still expressing optimism that an acceptable plan will emerge.”At this point, we don’t know what we’re doing,” said planning consultant Alan Richman, whose clients have been sent back to the drawing board yet again. “The Jewish congregation owns the property and intends to build something on it.””We’re very disappointed, but not discouraged,” added Rabbi Mendel Mintz, who leads the congregation.The Chabad of Aspen purchased the Main Street property between Third and Fourth streets last year for $5.06 million, according to records on file at the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. The site, currently known as L’Auberge d’Aspen, contains 19 cabins that have been rented as lodge rooms. Ten of them are relatively new; nine date to the late 1930s or early ’40s. The old cabins were simple motel accommodations – guests could pull up alongside the cabin they’d rented for the night.The old cabins aren’t currently designated as historic structures, but the property is within the Main Street Historic District, giving the HPC oversight of what happens there.

As part of the redevelopment, the city would like to see the old cabins protected through a formal historic designation. Too much change to the look and location of the cabins, however, could make them ineligible, said Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer.”We haven’t found the right balance yet,” she said. “How much can they relocate or alter the cabins before they don’t qualify to be historic anymore?”I know there’s a solution here,” she added.”We would be happy with the designation after we’re done,” Richman said. It’s likely the congregation would not have been interested in the property to begin with had the cabins already been designated as historic and subject to the city’s strict rules on alteration and relocation, he said. Preserving all of the cabins in their present locales effectively “condemns half the property,” Richman said.The proposed project calls for a two-story classroom building along Third Street, where two old cabins would have to be removed; and a two-story auditorium/sanctuary building along Fourth Street that would also contain offices, a library and other functions.

“It’s very hard to make all that compatible with those small buildings,” Richman said.The 10 new cabins and two old ones would be moved off site, but not demolished, under the latest plan. The remaining old cabins would be incorporated into the complex; four of them would be combined to create two employee housing units, according to the proposal.Historic integrity threatenedIn her memo to the HPC, Guthrie said the proposal has evolved into one “that has unacceptable impacts to the historic integrity of the property.” She urged the HPC to decide whether or not the cabins will be designated as historic, as the uncertainty about their future status is hindering discussion about what alterations will be acceptable on the site.”Having them unilaterally designated without our consent is not something we find acceptable,” Mintz said Wednesday. “We feel like the [HPC] has been very responsive, but we’re disappointed with the staff’s response to the project.”Despite the disagreement, HPC member Michael Hoffman said he believes the conceptual plans are still moving forward.

“I wouldn’t say it’s bogged down. I don’t think it is, frankly, but some hard decisions have to be made,” he said. “Do we agree the two cabins can be removed and still be an appropriate historic designation project?”Potentially complicating the HPC’s deliberations is a federal law, the Religious Land-Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, and its possible implications.Among its prohibitions, the act reads, “No government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation that unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions or structures within a jurisdiction.””Our attorneys are looking into it, but it’s not somewhere we want to go now,” Mintz said.Hoffman, an attorney, said he doesn’t believe the legislation would apply.”We’re not making it any more difficult for a religious institution to build here than anyone else,” he said. “Our land-use regulations are what they are.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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