Saving pieces of ‘Old Aspen’
November 17, 2011
Time will tell whether the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings in Aspen’s downtown commercial core will qualify as “historic” under the city’s Aspen Modern program, which deals protections of architecturally significant post-World War II structures.
Still, it bodes well that the owner of the buildings, Aspen Core Ventures LLC, is seeking their historic designations and will submit revised plans for their redevelopment. Because otherwise, the buildings might be lost, which was the owner-developer’s original plan: Raze the buildings and replace the Hyman Avenue property and an adjacent parking lot with a sparkling new, mixed-use commercial development encompassing about 31,000 feet of floor space.
The Aspen City Council on Monday evening was prepared to take up the issue of the Historic Preservation Commission’s approval of plans to demolish the Little Annie’s building when Community Development Director Chris Bendon and historic preservation officer Amy Guthrie dropped the news of the owner’s change of plans. Council members appeared to be in shock and had little to say. (Or maybe they were just looking forward to other items on the meeting agenda.)
Why the change of heart by the owner? Feelings in the community about the proposed removal of the building that houses the eatery were strong; this was evidenced in numerous letters to the editor The Aspen Times published since the HPC’s September decision. Citizens didn’t appear to be as concerned about the Benton Building, the former studio of the late artist Tom Benton, but that didn’t matter as much, given that the HPC had already determined the building to be historically significant and voted not to support its destruction.
For now, Little Annie’s will remain and so will the Benton Building. It’s hard to be sure whether people actually care about the restaurant building itself or just the actual eatery and bar contained within it. But again, it hardly matters; Little Annie’s is a local institution, and the community doesn’t want to lose it, and so now we move on to the next step.
That step is taking shape. The owner will revise its plans and submit them to the city by the end of this month. A Dec. 7 HPC meeting is tentatively planned to review the changes. Meanwhile, those who purport concern for the remaining examples of “Old Aspen” can breathe a heavy sigh of relief.
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We hope that the new negotiations between the city and the owner-developer go smoothly. It would be a shame if the situation soured as it did between Nikos Hecht, managing partner of Aspen Core Ventures, in 2008 over the former Wienerstube restaurant property. When the city denied a development plan, Hecht sued the city, and the settlement result was the sale of the property to the Aspen Art Museum and a fast-tracked development approval process for which city officials are still taking the heat.
And, you may remember the controversy earlier this year when the city entered into negotiations with an unnamed developer over the historically significant Given Building on Aspen’s west side, overlooking Hallam Lake. After several meetings, city officials declined to make the concessions the would-be developer was seeking, and talks came to an abrupt end. Soon after, the property’s owner, the University of Colorado’s medical school, demolished the former conference building – exercising its rights as a government entity – after securing a local buyer for the property who demanded that the building come down. Of course, all of the talk and the work spent trying to save the structure was noble. And also, for naught.
That scenario is unlikely to happen with the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings, given the fact that the city has more bargaining power over the owner than it did over the University of Colorado. There was nothing to prevent the demolition of the Given by a state agency; but the current property under question has a private owner without the same type of ultimate power. To win important development concessions from the city, Aspen Core Ventures must play ball.
Soon we’ll see how the game is playing out. Meanwhile, kudos to Hecht and his partners for their apparent change of heart over the fate of the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings. And good luck to the city in its quest to keep a small part of “Old Aspen” intact. We can go to Annie’s and eat our chicken-fried steak in peace – without constant worry of the wrecking ball.