Who controls Aspen’s commercial core?
In Aspen’s commercial real estate scene, said one observer, “there are pilot fish and there are sharks” – one way of describing a number of relatively small players who subsist off the leavings of their larger, more voracious cousins.Which leads to the question: Who owns Aspen’s commercial landscape?In other words, who are the big fish, and what have they gobbled up lately?The list isn’t long, but it does contain what could be called the usual suspects – investors and speculators whose names have popped up in recent news stories, or those who have managed to keep their names out of today’s headlines but who once were commonly acknowledged as the kingpins of local commercial real estate.In the latter category, and still said to control the largest piece of the local commercial real estate pie, are Tony Mazza and Frank Woods and their company, M&W Properties. If expressed in horse racing terms, while Mazza and Woods are in the lead, local attorneys Andy Hecht and Ron Garfield are moving up rapidly through the trailing pack. Still others who own multiple pieces of property in the core seem not to be quite so ambitious in their purchasing.
It is a challenge to identify who owns what in downtown Aspen, as all the buying and selling is done through real estate brokers, attorneys, limited liability corporations or partnerships, which effectively, whether by design or not, hide the names behind the money.Documents on file with the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office and the Colorado Secretary of State’s office generally give the names of registered agents. Official records can be supplemented by anecdotal information, however. And this is how The Aspen Times has deciphered who owns Aspen. It is important to note that many familiar with the local real estate market commented for this story; they demanded anonymity, though, claiming their livelihoods depend on good relations with the property owners whose names appear below. Only two property owners contacted would talk to the Times; most didn’t return phone calls. It is also important to note that the following is not an exhaustive list. Not included in this roundup are the hotels and condo buildings at the base of Aspen Mountain; various multiple-use structures scattered around the core; the Brand and Collins Block buildings controlled by the heirs of the late Harley Baldwin; the Zélé Café and two gas stations on Main (all under one ownership); and many more.Space considerations prevent a complete listing of every building and its owners, and sometimes the owner just can’t be determined by the available documents. But the general idea, it is to show that Aspen’s commercial core, while dominated by a couple of groups displaying layers of partnerships and interconnections, is not wholly owned by anyone.
Several real estate sources contacted by The Aspen Times agreed that Mazza and Woods remain the pre-eminent commercial landlords in downtown Aspen, with ownership, management or other controlling interests in some of the larger properties in the core.These properties include the Mill Street Plaza, the Mezzaluna Plaza and North Mill Station, among others (see info box). The pair reportedly also have a 20-year master lease on the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse space. County records also cite Woods as the owner of the L’Hostaria building at 620 E. Hyman Ave. And, with partner Wally Birk, now of Hawaii, Woods is reported to control the Aspen Grove Fine Arts Courtyard, a collection of galleries and retail spaces on East Cooper Avenue.Although neither Mazza nor Woods returned calls from The Aspen Times for this story, they have occasionally been in the news.In 2002, for instance, Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer both left Aspen after the expiration of leases in M&W properties. The departures led to complaints from some locals that the landlords were overpricing their real estate so that only high-end boutiques or real estate offices could afford them. The charges added fuel to an effort by downtown merchants to get the commercial core rezoned to discourage real estate offices from taking over storefronts. The City Council rejected the idea later that year as unnecessary and beyond the city’s range of appropriate regulation.
Attorneys Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht, reportedly in shifting partnership arrangements that have included Hecht’s son, Nikos, developer Steve Marcus, and entrepreneur John Provine, have been putting together a portfolio of properties that observers say rivals that of M&W Properties.Among the group’s most high-profile recent purchases was The Red Onion, which is listed in county records under multiple ownerships. Those ownerships are mainly listed under the address of either Garfield and Hecht directly, or under Red Onion Management Co. or the Katie Reed Management Co., both of which are connected to Garfield and Hecht.
In 2002, for instance, Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer both left Aspen after the expiration of leases in M&W properties. The departures led to complaints from some locals that the landlords were overpricing their real estate so that only high-end boutiques or real estate offices could afford them. The charges added fuel to an effort by downtown merchants to get the commercial core rezoned to discourage real estate offices from taking over storefronts. The City Council rejected the idea later that year as unnecessary and beyond the city’s range of appropriate regulation.Garfield & Hecht, closing the gapAttorneys Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht, reportedly in shifting partnership arrangements that have included Hecht’s son, Nikos, developer Steve Marcus, and entrepreneur John Provine, have been putting together a portfolio of properties that observers say rivals that of M&W Properties.Among the group’s most high-profile recent purchases was The Red Onion, which is listed in county records under multiple ownerships. Those ownerships are mainly listed under the address of either Garfield and Hecht directly, or under Red Onion Management Co. or the Katie Reed Management Co., both of which are connected to Garfield and Hecht.
The Garfield and Hecht team also is linked to the recent purchase of another of Aspen’s older, funkier watering holes, Cooper Street Pier, in partnership with real estate broker Joshua Saslove.The closing of the Onion, and the prospect of the same fate for Cooper Street, sent up howls of protest from locals who worry the spaces might become real estate showrooms, art galleries or some other brand of high-end retail. But the new owners have said they plan to keep some kind of restaurant-bar business as part of their redevelopment proposals for both properties.Other properties owned or controlled by Garfield and Hecht and their various partners include the Ajax Mountain Building, the Katie Reed complex and the American National Bank, among others (see info box).
The remaining parts of Aspen’s commercial core are parceled out among a number of local and out-of-town property owners.Two central and, in terms of square footage, important properties are owned by Jim Cox, now in his 80s and living in California.One of Cox’s properties is the Aspen Block, at the corner of the Hyman Avenue mall and Galena Street, which includes businesses facing onto the Hyman Avenue Mall and continuing around the corner to Tomorrow’s Laundry, with The Residence hotel upstairs above the retail shops. The other is the Ute City Banque building; the old Ute City Bar & Grille is now closed and the space is undergoing renovation. “I’m a pretty private guy,” said Cox, when reached at his home. He declined to discuss his business affairs in detail, other than to say he is “a strong supporter of old Aspen. We are not cut-and-run people.”In fact, during the 2002 rezoning debate, Cox was held up by business owners as an example of a non-greedy landlord, intent on offering affordable leases to locally oriented, non-chain businesses.”We think we’ve been good for the community, and we intend to continue to be,” he said, adding that he now sees the commercial real estate market as marked by “a huge influx of money” that is changing the face of the town.
Also on the Hyman Avenue mall are the Paragon and Quicksilver buildings, which are listed as being owned by Linden Nelson of Aspen. At the Wheeler Square commercial building, across from the Wheeler Opera House, most of the condominium-owned spaces are controlled by Mary Lynn and Eric Casper and the Casper Family LLC. Exceptions include The Hub cycle shop, owned by Charlie Tarver and his Charlie’s Cow Company LLC, and the law offices of Kaufman, Peterson & Dishler.Moving to another busy corner of town, three popular restaurants along Main Street – The Cantina, Asie and Gusto, partly topped by second-floor offices – are owned largely by investor Lowell Meyer. Meyer also is developing the lot at the northwest corner of Galena and Main streets and has ownership interests in what most recently has been the Polar Revolution snowboard shop at 312 S. Hunter St. and the building housing Syzygy and Isberian Rug Co.At the eastern edge of the commercial core, the Aspen Athletic Club building was bought last year by two partners from New Zealand, John Martin and Evan Christian, for a reported $9 million. The two also own the old Takah Sushi building on the Hyman Avenue mall, currently the home of the Zocalito restaurant, which they purchased a year earlier.Back in the center of things, Volk Plaza, home to Paradise Bakery, is owned the Richard Volk family.
And the list goes on. But whether the future will see this list become more consolidated in the hands of a shrinking number of owners, no one can say at this point.John Colson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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