The ZG files: Government has big plans for Aspen civic area |

The ZG files: Government has big plans for Aspen civic area

Carolyn SackariasonAspen Times Weekly

ASPEN A plan is quietly emerging that would overhaul five acres of downtown Aspen, and it includes rebuilding and adding hundreds of thousands of square feet in government offices and public space.City planners are quick to point out that the ZG Master Plan includes only 80,000 square feet of new buildings, but it is nonetheless the largest civic development undertaking since Aspens inception. The plan involves renovating, rebuilding and demolishing existing government-owned buildings. Over the past few years, a host of public meetings have attempted to frame a discussion about the redevelopment of the area bordered by Main Street, the Pitkin County Library and Rio Grande Park. A handful of civic buildings are presently located in the area, but the ZG plan is an attempt to organize those and other elements into a kind of civic campus, while also greatly expanding government office and meeting space.Still, because of its size and complexity, or perhaps the lack of solid details thus far, the plan has flown mostly under the radar of the collective citizenry. And that bothers government critics, who feel the ZG Master Plan has taken on a life of its own and has become excessive for a small ski town.It seems to me that it sprung up like a disease, said Jasmine Tygre, a former Aspen City Councilwoman and former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Tygre is one of five finalists hoping to be appointed to the council, filling the seat of the late J.E. DeVilbiss, who spoke against the effort. If appointed, Tygre will likely review and possibly vote on the ZG Master Plan.People just go ahead with ideas and they have merit but are too grandiose, Tygre said. I think its pretty scary.

The ZG Master Plan proposes expanding various structures owned and used by Pitkin County and the city of Aspen, as well as the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) offices. The Aspen Art Museum (AAM) also is a partner in the plan, and wishes to move from its current home on the north side of the Roaring Fork River to a more central location. Underground parking, affordable housing and open space also are part of the proposal.The largest expansion includes the art museum, which is eyeing the site of the former Aspen Youth Center to build a 30,000-square-foot facility. The county also is asking for 64,000 square feet for a new complex on the site of the existing Pitkin County Annex building and the Zupancis parcel, just to the east.Planners say the project would establish modest urban edges around Galena Plaza, a circular open space where Galena Street dead-ends between the library and the jail. At the same time, the redevelopment would better connect downtown Aspen with Rio Grande Park and the Roaring Fork River by way of pedestrian paths and a green belt around the property, according to city planners. The so-called Galena Street extension would become a narrow pedestrian path closed to vehicles.A clogged artery becomes an open tributary, said Ben Gagnon, City Halls special projects planner who is spearheading the effort.The site encompasses the land from the library to the parking lot at the corner of Mill Street and Rio Grande Place, including the ACRA offices, the city-owned Rio Grande parking garage and the upper floors of the former youth center. The project area also extends up to Main Street to include the courthouse, the jail, the county annex building and the Zupancis property, which is currently occupied by the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department and the city parking department.

The ZG plan rests on the shoulders of whats known now as the Civic Master Plan, a regulatory document approved by the City Council in 2006 that maps out the future of all city-owned buildings, open space and properties.The civic plan was created by an advisory group of 24 people, including various citizens and representatives from the business, nonprofit and government sectors. The group started its effort in 2000 and quickly determined that the governments facilities were woefully inadequate, and a civic center should be created that brings arts and culture into the mix.City government started a master planning process and invited four other partners to be part of the redevelopment. Established in 2007, the ZG Partnership includes the library, Pitkin County, the city of Aspen, ACRA and the art museum.In the months following, two more public meetings were held and citizens haggled over the size of the buildings, whether more government office space is needed, and whether the art museum should remain in its current location along the river on a city-owned parcel.A public meeting was held this past March at the Hotel Jerome, where more than 120 people saw the draft plan in 3-D.Believing there was enough public support, the City Council voted this past May to make the ZG Master Plan an extension of the civic plan. The conceptual plan is now under review by the planning and zoning commission, which will see the latest version on Oct. 14. Its expected by the end of the year that the P&Z will make a recommendation to the council, which would make a decision on the overriding template by next spring.When and if the master plan is approved by the City Council, the partners will have to get separate approvals for each of their land-use applications.It does not entitle anyone to build anything, it just allows each party to go one by one, Gagnon said.From initial planning to final construction, the plan is expected to take 12 to 20 years, with six different phases that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. (Thats about as precise an estimate as city officials have at this early stage.) The plan also will require several public votes.Bonds would have to be approved, and the use of tax dollars and the entitlements to public land would have to be endorsed by Aspen voters. So if the art museum wants to build on the youth center site, for example, that will require a majority vote by Aspen residents.The plan as it stands now includes the expansion of the library on the western edge of Galena Plaza; a town hall meeting room on the roof of the parking garage, city offices where the ACRA building is, two new buildings in the Rio Grande surface parking lot where ACRA, affordable housing and commercial space would be located; a new art museum at the youth center site, and a new county annex building on the eastern edge of the property. An underground parking garage would connect the jail to the courthouse and all the way to the Zupancis property. Underground parking also would be built under the Rio Grande surface lot.Obviously this is a highly complicated plan with a lot of moving parts, Gagnon said.

City and county officials say that local government has outgrown its existing space and there are not enough meeting rooms for large groups to convene. Officials at ACRA and the art museum also complain that they dont have enough space to efficiently operate.They all say their expansions create a vision for the next generation, while at the same time addressing current needs, some of which are more urgent than others.There is a rationale for each place, Gagnon said. Critics, however, see the plan as more development that will strike another blow to Aspens small-town charm. Whats more, they say its bureaucracy at its worst.The best thing that could happen to this city is to put all of the community development staff on paid leave and the let the town catch its breath, said Aspen resident Phyllis Bronson, who has spoken against the plan since its inception.Its going to change the character of the town, she said, adding that shes afraid there wont be enough public interest and the plan will be rubber-stamped. And then one day we wake up and we have a Limelight Lodge.Proponents of the plan have a different argument, saying a town center should be a vibrant place where the public should feel welcomed. And that isnt the case today.

Everybody is trying to get a piece of it, Tygre said. Once you get in a process, there is no way of getting out of it.The central anchor to the overhauled civic area also is perhaps the most controversial the new art museum.Supporters argue that an expanded museum would bring vitality to Galena Plaza, which government officials call an under-used public place. The AAM was chosen as a partner because it is the only year-round, privately funded cultural organization in Aspen that can expand without public money.The art museum, currently 5,650 square feet, has considered an expansion for years. It wasnt until the city invited the museum to be a partner that the concept had any real possibilities, said Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, executive director of the AAM.Zuckerman Jacobson said the needs of the community have outgrown the existing building, noting that last years attendance was 12,000 people and, as of July 2008, 21,000 visitors had come through the doors.This July, the AAM hired architectural firm Shigeru Ban Architects (SBA) to make sure the size of the proposed building fits the site. Zuckerman stresses that a building has not been designed yet.The AAM also has raised $28.5 million in pledges toward its $35 million capital campaign $20 million for the new building and $15 million for an endowment.We are testing the needs, the square footage and fundraising, Zuckerman Jacobson said, adding the AAM board of directors signed off on a new museum in August. It was a way of saying, we are doing what we say we can do.The new building is envisioned to be a signature piece for arts-related events and activities in downtown Aspen. It also would help build an international reputation for the AAM.And thats what bothers critics that the AAM is trying to be more than what it needs to be, and at the expense of the community.We dont need a signature art museum in our little ski town, just like we dont need Christian Dior, Bronson said, adding that hiring an architect and fundraising make the new museum look like a done deal. Enough already.Bronson and other critics say public votes should occur before any plans are decided on.Zuckerman Jacobson said she and the board are just following the government process.We are not trying to muscle in anywhere and we will always be respectful of the process, she said. This will provide a gathering place for this community and all we are doing is creating that opportunity.

In recent years, both the city of Aspen and Pitkin County have renovated their primary office buildings, creating smaller working spaces for employees. We are converting closets into offices, said Pitkin County Public Works Director Brian Pettet, who added that the suggestion of relocating county offices near the airport was determined to be unfeasible.The court system has grown and needs to take over the first floor of the courthouse, where the assessor and treasurer are now located. Those functions, as well as a host of other administrative services would go in the new annex building. Underneath, a parking garage would connect the county campus, including the jail and courthouse, and accommodate a fleet of public safety and county vehicles. The subgrade area also would have evidence rooms, interview rooms, a forensic lab and other jail-related functions.The county is ready for the ZG Master Plan to be done so we know where we stand, Pettet said. The need is strong today but we are designing it for the next generation too.The county has socked away about $4 million for a future campus, but it will need much more, which will have to come in the form of a voter-approved bond, Pettet said.The city is in equally poor shape when it comes to space, Gagnon said, so a city annex building is proposed where ACRA is now. City departments have burst out of City Hall, Gagnon noted, and moved into five satellite offices around town.We have simply outgrown City Hall, he said.

Eric Klanderud, representing ACRA, said its current 1,500-square-foot visitor center and office space cant handle todays activity. He noted that 18,800 visitors have come through the doors so far this year.Its not a conducive space for the high number of visitors we get, he said, adding ACRA is proposing 3,000 square feet in a new building at the corner of Mill Street and Rio Grande Place.Kathy Chandler of the Pitkin County Library said the current 30,000-square-foot facility isnt at capacity yet, but must plan for the future.It wouldnt be done until 2014 or 2015, she said. When the city sold the property where the library is, she added, it included a 44-foot easement to the east.

How its all going to get paid for and who builds first are the big questions. With the economy in the tank and heightening skepticism from the public, the ZG Master Plan could remain pie-in-the-sky planning that stays on paper for years to come.There arent enough people asking enough questions Why are they visiting this now? Tygre said. There are more things to focus on than civic

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