Aspen Times editorial: City officials need to pick up pace on restaurant space near new City Hall
It’s difficult to justify attempts to place regulations on Aspen’s free market when the city could ease the sting of high prices by filling its own restaurant property.
We’re talking about the Rio Grande building next to the shiny new Aspen City Hall and below the Pitkin County jail and courthouse. The city owns the property and has leased it at a discounted rate to various affordable restaurant operators over the years. The most recent tenant, Taster’s Pizza, closed in 2019 in advance of the city’s remodel of the Rio Grande building and construction of the new City Hall.
Ah, Taster’s. Conveniently located across the street from the skateboard park, basketball courts and public field, it was an affordable, community restaurant where you could actually feed a family of four for less than $100, if not even less than $40 or $50 (that includes tips and drinks, thank you). Government workers frequented Taster’s, courtroom jurors ate from Taster’s, as did construction workers, youth and teens, dentists, lawyers and the straggler looking for a bite to eat.
Yet as reported Tuesday, finding a restaurant tenant for the empty space is on the backburner for city officials, as they are busy enough working on how to renovate the old City Hall space at the Armory Building, the third phase of development calling for 79 worker-housing units at Burlingame Ranch, and preserving the Old Power House. Additionally, the restaurant space isn’t tenant ready, and the city didn’t budget for the expense in 2022, it was reported.
In fact, it could be another three years before the city leases the space — which rivals the quaint New York Pizza in size — to a restaurant.
There’s a lot wrong with this picture showing a brand-new Aspen City Hall next to an empty, city-owned space that has housed affordable restaurants for more than a quarter-century.
First, city leaders often lament about the loss of mom-and-pop and affordable restaurants, yet nothing was done, as far as we can tell, to fill the Rio Grande building space when the new City Hall opened.
Second, the city whiffed by not putting bathrooms in the Rio Grande building when it was being renovated. Shaw Construction was already there doing the improvements. The city knew construction costs were going through the roof, and it was irresponsible to not have done that when construction was taking place. As the property owner and the landlord, the city should provide bathrooms for its own facilities.
We were encouraged by actions taken during Tuesday’s City Council regular meeting, however, when Councilwoman Rachel Richards called for a future work session to specifically address the empty restaurant space rather than waiting years while it sits void.
While she said she understands that the city has a lot of ongoing capital projects and needs with a limited capital budget, Richards expressed her concern with the capacity and the timeline for reopening the Taster’s space as an affordable restaurant.
Richards wants to have a future discussion about whether the city’s general fund can augment or supplement the costs to finish the space and thereby accelerate the process through issuing a request for proposals to find an operator to finish the space out. She also recognizes that it’s not an easy or quick thing to go down the request-for-proposals rabbit hole, but moving now gets the city back on track sooner than it’s currently anticipating.
Councilman Skippy Mesirow said he supports a work session and said a local restaurateur reached out to him Tuesday morning asking to partner with the city in the space. As well, Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he understood the necessity of getting that space back online, but he doesn’t want to take staff away from the current moratorium work.
We implore the city to move faster on this issue. This doesn’t need to be analysis paralysis. Agree to a work session in the next few weeks, form a committee, put one staff member on it and send out a request for proposals. All it takes is political will, which would also build some goodwill between Aspen residents and their government.
The Aspen Times editorial board’s members are Publisher Allison Pattillo and Editor David Krause, along with Rick Carroll, who is managing editor, and reporters Scott Condon and Carolyn Sackariason.