Questions crop up in Wheeler expansion plan
ASPEN – With the proposed expansion of Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House on track for a public vote in November, the City Council will be asked Tuesday to weigh in on a number of issues regarding the $30 million project.A conceptual plan for the expansion is currently under review by the Historic Preservation Commission, with Planning & Zoning Commission members sitting in (the HPC will discuss the project again Wednesday). The project timeline calls for the council to review the conceptual plan by late August, but Tuesday, the design team wants to run a few questions by the council, including whether a November ballot question to seek approval for financing the project is still the goal.The Wheeler has about $26 million available, but borrowing the remainder requires voter authorization. The timing of asking voters to extend the real estate transfer tax that supports the Wheeler (it currently expires at the end of 2019) may also get discussion.”We’re looking at this as a checking-in session,” said Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler, regarding Tuesday’s discussion.Among the issues that have surfaced during the HPC’s review of the project: Should an on-site housing unit be included with the expansion and does a two-bedroom suite for visiting artists and other nonprofit uses make sense? Both are proposed on the fourth floor of the expanded building.Slaton is adamant about having a staffer reside at the facility to handle after-hours events quickly.”I think it’s absolutely essential,” he said. “Even in the short time I’ve been here, we’ve had a sewer line explode.”The new construction would include a 225-265 seat theater, to be built underground on the vacant parcel next to the existing Wheeler Opera House. Above-grade floors would house a new box office, administrative offices and other community space. The movement of some functions into the new space would open spaces within the historic building, prompting a question to the council about what they’d like to see in the leasable spaces of the old building, which also include the spaces currently occupied by Bentley’s and Valley Fine Art Gallery.”It’s a lot of square footage that gets freed up. How do we deploy that?” Slaton said. “We need the council’s direction on that.”And then there’s the front door. The HPC would like the original opera house entrance retained as the entrance to the venue, Slaton said. The original entrance currently functions as an exit at the bottom of the interior stairway that leads up to the opera house; the current entrance was built as part of a 1984 remodeling project in the historic building, but a new front entrance is envisioned with the expansion. (The most prominent entrance in the historic building, currently the door to Bentley’s, originally served a bank.)The design team also wants the council’s thoughts on calls from some to scale back the project.The first element that would get cut is a multipurpose room that many groups that use the Wheeler say is needed, according to Slaton’s memo to the council.”If we do that, the purpose of that building will start to become compromised,” he said. “You only get to build these things once.”Tuesday’s discussion is expected to begin at 4:30 p.m. in the council’s chambers at City Hall, Slaton firstname.lastname@example.org
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