Public lease talks for Aspen Power Plant set for June

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
City Council's public lease discussions for the Aspen Power Plant project, which would be located at 590 N. Mill St., are set for Tuesday.
Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times |

Organizers of the Aspen Power Plant project met with city leaders and elected officials behind closed doors Monday to continue lease discussions for the civic space.

Spencer McKnight, co-owner of the Aspen 82 television station, which would be one of four components to the project, said council members “reiterated their commitment” to the plan they approved in March 2015. A lease has yet to be finalized for the building, located at 590 N. Mill St. near the Rio Grande Trail and Roaring Fork River.

Lease talks will continue in public at a City Council work session scheduled for 6 p.m. June 7, said City Clerk Linda Manning.

Monday’s discussion touched off criticism from Matt Ferguson, an attorney for residents in the Oklahoma Flats neighborhood, which is near the building in question.

Some neighbors are against the project out of worries that its restaurant component, The Watershed, which would be run by Aspen Brewing Co. owner Duncan Clauss, would disrupt their quality of life and lower their property values because alcohol would be served. They also have taken issue with an events-production company that would be run by McKnight and his Aspen 82 partner David Cook, because of its alleged potential for noise and distractions. They have, however, shown vocal support for the 65-desk, incubator-themed office space on the second floor of the 7,200-square-foot building, the former home of the Aspen Art Museum and temporary digs for the Pitkin County Library. Gordon Bronson is leading that aspect of the project.

In a letter addressed to Mayor Steve Skadron, Ferguson accused the Power Plant team of engineering a “slick public relations campaign” through a barrage of letters to Aspen’s newspapers and posting them on social media.

Ferguson’s primary concerns, however, were that neighbors have yet to see a draft of the lease, for-profit ventures will be operating in a public building, the proposal is rife with zoning issues, and the closed-door talks should have been held in public.

“(Aspen Power Plant) clearly wants to pitch zoning arguments at City Council executive session,” Ferguson wrote. “Zoning is a matter of great public interest and important policy. Meetings on such subjects should be aired in public — not by (Aspen Power Plant) under the guise of lease negotiations — the lease version that still had not been provided to the city (or us). These matters must be discussed openly and in the public — the implication otherwise is that (Aspen Power Plant) is attempting to coax you around the zoning issues — in private.”

The lease hasn’t been made public, McKnight said, because “once it goes out there and is made public, it’s going to be hard to change anything. This has taken so long, and we’re trying to get it right by the City Council, the neighbors and Theatre Aspen,” which is located in close proximity to the building.

All four businesses likely will be for-profit, McKnight said, though he wasn’t ruling out the potential for the office space to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The would-be leaseholder, Aspen Power Plant LLC, is registered as a nonprofit with the state but does not have tax-exempt status through the IRS. Even so, McKnight said it would have a board of directors comprised of Bronson, Clauss, Cook and McKnight, along with community members.

“The plan is to bring in a board of advisors and bring in people so they can have a say,” McKnight said.

The city has determined the property to be located in a public zone after previously asserting that it was zoned low-density residential.

In order for the Aspen Power Plant to satisfy the city’s regulations for the publicly zoned space, the organization likely would have to show that it serves a community use under a nonprofit, tax-exempt umbrella. If it can’t, one alternative is to create a zoning overlay, which would require the City Council to pass an ordinance. Another option is to completely rezone the property.

“We’re looking forward to finishing this with the City Council and the community, of course,” McKnight said.