Theatre Aspen makes expansion pitch to council, boards |

Theatre Aspen makes expansion pitch to council, boards

Theatre Aspen pitched expansion plans to council

A view of a new Theatre Aspen facility that would be underground at the Rio Grande Park.
Courtesy rendering

A pitch led by Theatre Aspen’s executive director to expand the organization’s facilities and create a permanent underground venue got mixed reviews from officeholders and board members Monday.

“I think the good news is you have not heard a resounding ‘no,’ which means you can probably start working on this,” Aspen Mayor Torre told Jed Bernstein, the theater’s executive director.

The work session was held so Bernstein and his group could get a sense of direction from the members of Aspen City Council, planning and zoning board, and open spaces and trails board about replacing the performing arts tent with a partially underground venue and making other capital improvements. Bernstein and his representatives unveiled their vision for the organization’s next act in a discussion called a “sketch plan review,” which included a site visit by the parties before the discussion started.

Council and board members want to gather more information and mull the idea for another two weeks before deciding whether to authorize Theatre Aspen to submit a development application. Theatre Aspen needs their permission because the city of Aspen owns the land that would be developed.

Theatre Aspen’s performance venue and operational facilities are located by the John Denver Sanctuary off the Rio Grande Trail.

Bernstein said Theatre Aspen has been exploring the idea so it can expand its education program and back-of-stage area, operate year round, partner with other groups on events and productions, and expand the venue capacity.

According to Theatre Aspen’s plans presented Monday, the new venue would have 276 seats; the current one has 199. The auditorium, staging and booth areas would expand from the current 4,940 square feet to 7,538 square feet. The box office and concessions area would more than double from 350 square feet to 790 square feet.

Theatre Aspen’s footprint also would expand from 19,000 square feet to 37,000 square feet, which would require changes to its lease with the city.

“We are well aware of the complexity of what we’re talking about,” Bernstein said. “This is not a weekend fixer-upper in the backyard. Not by any stretch. Our hope and objective is to get mutual concurrence and enthusiasm that this general idea is worth exploring.”

The project would be financially supported by private funding, he said.

Land-use reviews, impact studies and public hearings will all be in Theatre Aspen’s future if it decides to move forward with the plan. Torre said the organization should consider taking the matter to voters to get a better sense of the public’s appetite for the endeavor. He suggested in March to hold an advisory vote, which is used to gauge public opinion and does not result in policy changes or new actions.

“I would love to see the public weigh in on it because it is their space,” he said.

The presentation generated both excitement and skepticism from the council and board members.

They said they liked the idea of the project and how it is on course with Theatre Aspen’s near 40-year trajectory. Their concerns included digging 14-16 feet below ground in an area next to the Roaring Fork River, using public land for private purposes, sharing the facility with other arts groups, impacts on other venues, worker housing mitigation, and accessibility to the venue and parking.

The above-grade height of the new venue would top out at 17 feet, 6 inches; the current one is one foot higher, architect Charles Cunniffe said. Creating an underground setting with a roof partially covered with grass would expand John Denver Sanctuary’s space, according to Cunniffe.

“If we do something with the theater and bring it underground and put the landscape over it, we actually make the John Denver Sanctuary the primary focus of that area rather than the theater,” he said.

The structure would be no more than 12 feet below the plaza and buried within a grass-covered knoll no higher than 25 feet.

“Theatre Aspen’s application discusses the complexity of irrigating and maintaining the green roof. Given the proposed design, staff recommend that maintenance and irrigation of the roof be the responsibility of Theatre Aspen,” according to a city memo regarding the proposal. “This would minimize or eliminate the hiring of new Parks staff to support this project.”

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