Wheeler expansion raises questions
September 30, 2009
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council on Tuesday questioned whether there is enough need and money to support an expansion of the Wheeler Opera House.
As a result, the council voted 4-0 to continue the public hearing on a proposal to build a 32,000-square-foot, $30 million addition to the Wheeler until a financial pro-forma on its operations and revenue streams is completed.
The council is the government review body that will ultimately decide the merits of the land-use application, but as a representative of the publicly owned facility, it is also acting as the land owner.
And without knowing what the costs will be to operate the new facility, or how much revenue it would bring in, the council couldn’t approve the conceptual plan Tuesday.
Instead, it set another public hearing for Oct. 26, when it’s expected that the public will be able to review a detailed financial analysis on future operations of the Wheeler Opera House addition, as well as the costs to build it.
Wheeler Opera House Executive Director Gram Slaton has been asked to formulate a detailed financial plan based on revenue from user groups, possible future tenants and the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT), which helps subsidize the facility. Operational costs also will be included.
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“I don’t want to support this without a process set up about finances,” said Mayor Mick Ireland. “The critical question for the public is whether or not there is sufficient revenue for future operations.”
Councilman Dwayne Romero said Slaton and the project’s design team, in representing the city as an applicant, should be held to the same standards as a private developer in providing adequate information for approval.
“It’s incumbent on the applicant to further develop and make a stronger commitment to it,” he said.
Councilman Derek Johnson said he’s struggling with whether a Wheeler expansion is needed and revenue generated from its high usage is key to making it successful.
“I don’t want to see this thing built and see it fail,” he said. “I look forward to seeing the numbers.”
Members of the public were limited to only speaking about the merits of the land-use proposal and whether there is a need for a new facility – not the finances of the operation.
About a dozen people spoke, with about half commenting it was needed and the other half saying it wasn’t.
The expansion is being proposed as a three-level facility that would be located to the west of the existing opera house, on a vacant parcel that was purchased by the city in 1982.
About 19,816 square feet would be set aside for commercial use, and 9,757 square feet would be used for arts, cultural and civic use. Another 2,521 square feet would be for affordable housing and office space.
The basement space would be two subgrade levels for a new performance space that would have a capacity of 265 theater seats. The Wheeler’s existing basement spaces would be converted to storage, or rented out to a commercial tenant.
Above-grade floors would house a new box office, administrative offices and other community space.
The first floor would have a new lobby and box office. The existing lobby would be converted to tenant commercial space, and the historic grand staircase would be preserved.
The second floor would have lobby and bar space, a multipurpose room, bathrooms and the mechanical room. The existing upstairs lobby would remain largely the same.
The third floor would have a 585-square-foot, one-bedroom affordable housing unit, as well as offices and a lobby. The existing opera house stage and theater would remain the same.
The rooftop would be environmentally friendly and could possibly house photovoltaic panels. During earlier review by the Aspen Planning and Zoning and Historic Preservation commissions, it was determined that there should be public access to the roof because there are very few, if any, rooftop spaces downtown that are accessible to the public and provide unobstructed views of Aspen Mountain.
Several issues relating to transportation, parking and historic preservation will need to be addressed when the council reviews a final plan.
Some suggestions to lessen the traffic impact as a result of the new venue include staggered start times when two events are planned; advertising parking and alternate transportation options and offering discount vouchers for the Rio Grande parking garage.
A detailed transportation plan will required at the final review.
The Wheeler has about $26 million available in its endowment to build the addition. The endowment is funded by the RETT, a .5 percent tax on real estate sales for the purposes of renovating, reconstructing and maintaining the Wheeler Opera House, according to the ballot language when it was first passed in 1979.
Slaton said the endowment is accruing interest and by the time the building would be constructed – the earliest being May 2011 – there may be enough money available without having to ask the public to approve bond financing.
“We’re pretty close to what we need,” Slaton said.
Aspen voters will ultimately approve the plan when it’s finalized. Slaton told the council time is of the essence to move the project forward in order to have enough information for the public to vote by November 2010.
“We are falling behind,” Slaton said of the approval schedule. “We have the eye on the prize.”