Summertime Theater Aspen tent may become permanent fixture in Rio Grande Park

Not-for-profit arts entity asks Aspen City Council to make tent walled and roofed year-round

The Theatre Aspen tent is seen on Tuesday, July 26, 2022, near Rio Grande Park.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

What has been considered an eyesore in the past, the bones of the seasonal Theater Aspen tent could be permanently covered during the winter after 10 years of masking the steel roof and girders with temporary materials.

During its regular meeting on Tuesday, Aspen City Council approved on first reading an ordinance that changes Theater Aspen’s land-use approval which allows the installation of a year-round roof and walls to the existing tent structure.

In 2012, after years of installing a summer-only tent, Theater Aspen was granted approval for a lobby and metal framed auditorium structure to remain in place and not be used in the offseason.

That was on the condition that the auditorium’s membrane roof and walls be taken down from October to April to reduce perceived visual impacts of a building in the park setting, according to Amy Simon, the city’s planning director.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who lives in the area and walks through it, said she thinks it’s an appropriate request to consider permanently covering the shell.

“You really do see the steel frame in the winter in a way that leaving it up might make it less obtrusive,” she said, adding she would like to revisit the master plan for the area, which includes Rio Grande Park and the John Denver Sanctuary.

Richards noted the back of the tent has in the past been a site for trailers and other equipment and that area was originally envisioned as a courtyard.

“Now it feels like the theater has outgrown the facility,” she said, noting she has been a supporter of a permanent facility at that location.

After 10 years and the construction of permanent bathrooms in the park, Theater Aspen perceives removal of the roof to have minimal public benefit and several negatives, including an annual $50,000 a year cost to do so.

Simon recommended approval, saying Theater Aspen has valid justifications for the requests, including reduced truck trips and impacts on the park site, as well as providing maximum protection of the non-profit’s facility and financial asset that stay on site in winter.

The not-for-profit entity has leased the property from the city since the 1990s and has been performing in Rio Grande Park since 1987, initially in a summertime only circus tent.

Based on previous approvals, the lobby is now in place year round and the auditorium is partially disassembled and screened.

At the time that was required, Theater Aspen did not expect to be able to afford a roof membrane designed for snow loads, and decision-makers wanted to minimize the impact of a building mass in the park, according to Simon.

Since then, circumstances have changed as the bathroom structures have been built and technology to reinforce the roof for the winter has become available.

Councilmen John Doyle and Skippy Mesirow said they supported the proposal going forward but pointed out that making it a somewhat permanent structure with a roof and walls was not the intent when approvals were granted for the lobby.

Mayor Torre said he has concerns about leaving an unattended building during the winter and wants evidence of how much it costs to remove the roof each year.

He also said when he was on council in 2012 he voted in the minority and was against leaving the steel structure up.

“I at that time I supported having it come down still and not leave that framework up and I only say that because of this mission creep,” he said, noting that second and final reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Aug. 9. “I’m interested in the public hearing and what we are going to hear at that meeting.”