Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
Aspen, CO, Colorado
It makes me nervous to say anything nice about a developer.
Even when one of them seems to truly merit a kind word, you never can be sure when their inherent weasel nature will suddenly emerge, and there you are, on record praising a weasel for all the world to see. Flat on your back, cursing your fate, like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls away the damn football one more time.
On the other hand, what the heck – if I get a weasel bite in the butt, well, that’ll just give me material for another column.
So, here we go: I have to say I have been impressed by what I’ve heard – wait, make that “some of what I’ve heard” (I’ll explain in a moment) – from Mark Hunt, a Chicago developer with a solid beachhead in downtown Aspen.
Hunt has control of two major Aspen properties: the Gap building and the Bidwell Building. And his plan, like any good developer, is to tear them both down and build something spiffy – and profitable.
So far, all standard procedure.
But what makes Hunt’s plans stand out, according to a story in the Aspen Daily News, is his desire to create reasonable buildings rather than the current standard of bloated monuments to ego and greed.
Hunt is not demanding the right to build three-story edifices with the multimillion-dollar top-floor condos that have become the required cherry on top of every hot-crap sundae of downtown Aspen development.
And that position seems not to be just rhetoric. His actual plans for those new buildings reflect that claim: There are no condos. There are no extra floors.
Hunt, almost unbelievably, seems to be actually accepting the city’s zoning code and community plan.
I know, I know. There must be a trick in here somewhere.
And, of course, there is. I’m not quite ready to get to it, but I will.
Sticking with the good stuff: Neither project has a third story, and neither requires extra square footage beyond what’s already there.
The man simply wants to tear down a couple of buildings and replace them with a couple of new buildings of about the same size.
As I said: Wow.
As a sidelight, Hunt, being from Chicago, might or might not imagine himself following in the footsteps of Aspen’s Chicago godfather/savior, Walter Paepcke. We cannot help but note that among Hunt’s various Aspen real estate acquisitions is a $14 million Red Mountain home he bought from Antonia Zurcher, a member of the Paepcke clan.
And Hunt is also part of the real estate partnership that has taken over ownership of the Hotel Jerome and, in the process, brought Eric Calderon and Tony DiLucia back to Aspen.
These are good things. (Well, Calderon and DiLucia are – the Red Mountain mansion is just part of the game.)
OK, now: One aspect of the situation that some people might consider a bad thing is the demolition of the Bidwell Building, which was designed by the hallowed Fritz Benedict in the 1960s.
But for me, getting rid of that building is one of the benefits of the deal.
Fritz was a wonderful man and, perhaps, an excellent architect, but that building is undistinguished at best – and a bit of an eyesore at worst.
And, beyond that, frankly, anything we can do to scrub the name Bidwell from this community is a good thing. Bert Bidwell was a nasty old SOB, famous for harassing “hippies” in the 1960s, banning Bil Dunaway’s name from a statue honoring 10th Mountain Division veterans in Aspen and just generally casting a rather vile shadow wherever he went.
So tear it down!
So … what’s the bad part?
Well, again according to the Daily News, a marketing brochure seeking investors for the Gap building project is aimed right straight at the worst of the new Aspen.
That brochure says, “Galena Street has become Aspen’s retail row and its answer to ‘Rodeo Drive,’ ‘Madison Avenue,’ ‘Bond Street’ or the ‘Avenue des Champs-Elysees’ with top luxury brands intertwined with art galleries, dining and local shops.”
Just typing that made me throw up in my mouth a little. And to think that just a few sentences ago I called Bidwell vile.
That “Rodeo Drive” stuff is just plain repulsive. (Champs-Elysees, mon cul!)
But, still, it really amounts to nothing more than calling names, as opposed to the more permanent kind of nastiness that is embodied in the oversized buildings with condos on top that others are busily planning and building.
Those wretched buildings are the sticks and stones that will break Aspen’s bones. The names, as they say on the playground, will never harm us.
The other bit of nastiness, of course, is that in order to make a profit from these more reasonably sized buildings, Hunt and his investors will have to charge rents appropriate to Rodeo Drive or the Champs-Elysees.
And how ironically perfect that the Gap, once welcomed as a store where one could buy affordable underwear and socks in Aspen, will be replaced by stores such as, reportedly, Restoration Hardware, Christian Louboutin, Anthropologie and Hermes. No underwear for ski bums there, folks. Better head downvalley or go commando.
And that, is the essence of the challenge facing Aspen.
I mourn the loss of Pomeroy Sports, whose bottom-of-the-mountain space will now forever be too expensive for a ski shop.
But I mourn, even more, the loss of the views of Aspen Mountain, stolen by the Aspen Art Museum.
Is it worse to wound Aspen’s soul (with “Rodeo Drive” rents and rhetoric)? Or to scar Aspen’s beauty (with too-tall buildings that block the view)?
So, for now at least, I am inclined to tip my figurative hat to Mr. Mark Hunt. And, trust me, I won’t hesitate to turn on him – rabid weasel against rabid weasel – if all his promises turn out to be the usual lies.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.
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