Wheeler expansion in Aspen gaining traction | AspenTimes.com
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Wheeler expansion in Aspen gaining traction

Carolyn SackariasonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN The proposal for an estimated $30 million remodel and expansion of Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House recently debuted before local government boards, which are reviewing the plans and will ultimately determine the buildings size.Its anticipated that Aspen residents will vote on the project in November after it goes through the reviews of the Historic Preservation and the Planning and Zoning commissions, as well as the City Council.We want to keep the thing moving, said Gram Slaton, the Wheelers executive director. Its attached to an iconic building so we want to err on the side of more meetings than less.At the same time, there is a sense of urgency in getting approval so city officials can capitalize on the slow construction market and low-cost building.We dont want to be accused of slamming this through, Slaton said. But its already a project long in the tooth; 34 years old.Plans for a second performing arts center in Aspen have been under consideration for more than three decades, since it was first introduced by Wheeler supporters. Construction of a Wheeler expansion has been discussed since at least 1975 as part of a renovation of the facility, which was built in 1889.The open parcel next to the Wheeler on Hyman Avenue was bought in 1982 specifically for future Wheeler use. The property is 60 feet wide by 100 feet deep, or roughly the same size as the space where the Wheeler Opera House sits. Efforts to construct an expansion in 1983 were scrapped due to a lack of funds and an inappropriate design.In 2004, the Aspen City Council established a master plan to re-examine the historic Wheeler and the need for an expansion. This past January, the City Council approved moving forward with a pre-design and planning phase for expansion.A design team has been established and includes New Jersey-based Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects LLC (FMG), as well as Sarah Broughton and John Rowland from Aspen-based Rowland + Broughton Architects (R+B). Aspen-based Bluegreen, a landscape design firm, is also part of the team.The planning and architectural budget for this year is $400,000, Slaton said.A new facility would be smaller than the existing Wheeler Opera House, which has 30,000 square feet of usable space. Proposed new spaces include a 299-seat performance space with associated support spaces; a lobby for a new theater and expanded lobby for the existing 503-seat existing theater; a relocated box office and administrative offices; and housing for visiting artists and employees.The new facility also wouldnt be as tall as the historic theater, which is five stories. But a significant portion of it could be built underground 40 feet or deeper.How its paid for has not yet been decided, but its likely that it will be funded through the Wheelers endowment or by bond financing.Whether a November ballot measure would be for financing the project or a vote on the plans will be up to the City Council to decide.The expansion and remodel would likely deplete the Wheeler Opera Houses endowment, which is funded by Aspens real estate transfer tax. There is currently about $26 million in the bank, Slaton said.Its up to council whether to deplete the funds or not, he said. When Slaton and the design team went before the HPC and P&Z earlier this month, their marching orders were to set the building back from the street, break up the massing and make it smaller.Slaton expects to be reworking the plan all summer as the team receives more feedback from the public and local government bodies. An open house on the latest design likely will be scheduled in the coming months.We want people to be well informed and not feel left out of the process, Slaton said. Were trying very hard to have a finished project that is shovel ready [before a public vote].Were as anxious to get it in front of the public as the public is to see it. The challenge is keeping the mass and scale of the building appropriate yet have it be large enough to accommodate all user groups.Area nonprofits such as the Aspen Writers Foundation, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Theatre Aspen, Aspen Film, the Music Associates of Aspen, the Aspen Art Museum and other area arts organizations all have indicated that they could use additional space.Its 10 pounds of programming in a 5-pound sack, Slaton said. The next public review of the proposal is scheduled for June 24 in front of the P&Z and the HPC.csack@aspentimes.com


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