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Theatre Aspen proposes new, year-round facility in Rio Grande Park

New Theatre Aspen facility would be underground and more than triple the size of the current seasonal tent

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

Theatre Aspen is proposing to more than triple the size of its facility in Rio Grande Park and dig as far down as 25 feet where a larger auditorium would be located.

The current size of the seasonal tent and site is 8,000 square feet, and the new proposal is to make it 27,521 square feet, most of which would be dedicated to support facilities.

Jed Bernstein, producing director of Theatre Aspen, said last week there are many reasons for the expansion, but the lack of current infrastructure for back-of-the-house operations is a big driver, as is making the site a year-round performing arts facility.



“This is a good moment for us as we approach our 40th anniversary,” he said. “There is unmet demand for audiences to have performing arts space in town.”

In the application for sketch plan review, which will occur next week with Aspen City Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission, the development team noted that the back of the stage area within the existing tent is limited.




That’s why trailers for storage and dressing rooms and portable bathrooms are placed behind the tent.

The development plan

The biggest change to the facility layout is that rather than entering the lobby and walking up to the seating area, patrons would be walking into a subgrade space beneath the park.

The lowest level of the structure would be 12 feet below the plaza and buried within a grass-covered knoll. The knoll would rise gradually to its highest elevation of 25 feet.

The main level would have the lobby entrance and pedestrian plaza on the east side of the facility as it is now, leading to the performance auditorium in the middle of the site.

The main level also would have support services, including the ticket booth, concession area and bathrooms.

The plaza plan also has a much larger back-of-stage area, which will be the largest space on the level — bigger than even the performance auditorium — which is designed to provide room for stage sets to be stored and mobilized in a more efficient manner than today’s conditions.

“By putting the stage below ground, we’ll have the height without going up,” Bernstein said, noting that the current facility doesn’t have the capacity for a projection system, which is technology used for scenery and other theatrical necessities.

He added that more height is necessary for staging plays, lighting, fly lines from which to hang scenery and similar rigging above the stage.

The existing size of the auditorium is 4,940 square feet, and the new one is proposed at 7,538 square feet, expanding from 199 seats to 276.

The lower-level plan shows there would be a rehearsal space and areas for performers to get ready, including a green room and several dressing rooms.

Bernstein said the proposed facility is an improvement for those who appreciate theater and up-to-date facilities, as well as those who enjoy the park and green space.

The knoll would be designed to expand and enhance the park, providing a green garden roof where the theater tent presently sits.

The development team, comprising land use planner Alan Richman and architect Charles Cunniffe, say in their sketch plan review documents that the grassy knoll would allow outdoor users to enjoy the open space and would complement the park.

It also would be an enhancement of the area because the performances occur out of sight of park users and neighboring properties.

The facility would become year-round, instead of the current May through September seasonal schedule that has between 60 to 65 performances, along with some other events held by other entities.

Theatre Aspen also stages events offsite, like cabaret performances 10 to 12 times a year at the Hotel Jerome during the winter holiday season. There are five or six during the summer at the tent, and two performances also will occur at the Benedict Music Tent this year.

Theatre Aspen has an active program for students, and there are between 12 and 24 children’s-oriented performances staged at venues around Aspen.

Those would be brought to the new facility, making it a year-round venue centered around the arts.

“Our educational efforts are ramping up, and our reach is getting bigger and bigger,” Bernstein said, adding that a larger facility will attract more and better talent in the future.

The development process

The development team for the not-for-profit filed a sketch plan review document with the city of Aspen, and the details of the plan will be presented at a public meeting scheduled at 4 p.m. Aug. 8 in council chambers.

The city’s open space and trails board also plans to be present, and the meeting will begin with a site visit to the current facility.

Because Theater Aspen leases land owned by the city and the proposal has many implications for the park, its users, city staff and assets, the applicant has been directed to introduce the concept as a sketch plan review, according to Amy Simon, the city’s planning director.  

“The process, as defined by the land use code, allows for a nonbinding conversation to provide the applicant with early feedback on their concept, and to receive advisory suggestions that could be addressed by an eventual development application,” she wrote in an email. “At this point we are not doing an in-depth analysis of compliance with land use regulations, nor have we formally referred the proposal to other city departments who might have an interest in this work. That would all happen later if a land use application is submitted.”

Community Development Director Phillip Supino determined sketch plan review because it involves a public facility, has the potential for significant community interest and would benefit from additional public input.

The development team has met with the parks department to get their input prior to making the submission of its 21-page pre-application summary, of which many aspects have yet to be fully fleshed out.

There are threshold issues that were determined in the pre-application process that are expected to be addressed during sketch plan review.

Those include if the current site for the tent is appropriate; whether the green roof design is the preferred alternative; if affordable housing mitigation is required; what the level of usage should be; what vehicular access for construction and long-term use of the facility would be; among other concerns.

The development team addressed some of those concerns and questions in the application and will be on hand to answer more at next week’s meeting.

“It’s a thoughtful approach, and we are working very deliberately with the city,” Bernstein said. “This meeting will be very important, and if we are on the same wavelength, that will provide a launch pad to a capital campaign.”

Bernstein said Theatre Aspen already has a $5 million commitment, and he didn’t have an immediate estimate of how much the project would cost.

“There has always been an appetite for the arts in Aspen,” Bernstein said, adding that the theater company that is now Theatre Aspen has been conducting performances in a tent at Rio Grande Park since 1987. “We have proven that we are good neighbors and stewards of the space.”

A different request to leave the current tent roof in place is a separate topic. The public hearing for that is set 5 p.m. Aug. 9

csackariason@aspentimes.com

The back side of the Theatre Aspen tent is jammed with portable restrooms, trailers, work stations and materials.
Carolyn Sackariason/The Aspen Times
The back side of the Theatre Aspen tent is packed with work materials, trailers, temporary restrooms and trash.
Carolyn Sackariason/The Aspen Times
A view of a new Theatre Aspen facility that would be underground at the Rio Grande Park.
Courtesy rendering
The view of a proposed underground Theatre Aspen auditoriums with a ‘green roof.’
Courtesy rendering
A view of a proposed Theatre Aspen facility that would be mostly underground and close to 30,000 square feet.
Courtesy rendering
A view of a proposed Theatre Aspen auditorium that would be underground and close to 30,000 square feet.
Courtesy rendering
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