Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Last week, the Aspen City Council voted to allow the Jewish Community Center to take over the old Silver Lining Ranch location east of Aspen.

Combined with the defeat of the new art museum, that means, according to a good friend of mine, that Aspen has dodged two bullets.

Two enormous bullets, to be precise.

Before it decided to switch to the Silver Lining Ranch site, the Jewish Community Center was on track to build a 34,000-square-foot monster (and I mean “monster” only in the best sense of the word) on upper Main Street.

And, before it was squashed (and I mean “squashed” only in the best sense of the word) by voters, the art museum was planning on putting up a 30,000-square-foot building on Main Street in the heart of town.

So … 64,000 square feet of new construction on Main Street ” two huge buildings ” are no longer heading our way.

Now, I know that some of you will consider this a terrible thing.

Here we are, in the middle of a recession/depression (repression?) and we need all the help we can get. Those two buildings would have meant more jobs, more income, more whatever for this ailing town.

But personally, I’m not sad at all. In fact, I think it’s probably a good thing.

But, good or bad, let’s look at the lessons to be learned.

The Jewish Community Center is very much alive. A purely private project, it had already raised its money, bought that Main Street property on the open market and gotten its approvals.

Then, for a number of reasons, the project’s backers decided that things would be better if they moved away from Main Street and all that heavy traffic and congestion.

So they bought another piece of private property on the open market, put together plans, made their way through another round of approvals (and some significant neighborhood opposition) and got a final OK.

The art museum, as I said, might learn some lessons here. And the most obvious lesson, I would think, would be to start looking for a new location if they really, really want to build a new museum.

The biggest flaw in the plan that was just voted down was the fact that it was based on buying a piece of city-owned land.

For me, that was the heart of the problem. If the museum had snapped up a piece of private property for its project, a public vote probably would not have been necessary. And any debate would have been centered on the merits of the project, without the distraction of the questionable sale of public land.

I noticed that, in the run-up to the election, some people were suggesting that the museum could go on the empty lot at the corner of Hyman and Hunter.

I certainly have no idea whether that’s a feasible proposal, but I certainly think that would make one hell of a great location for a museum ” in the heart of Aspen’s real core.

And let me be clear, although I wrote a column opposing the museum, I don’t have anything against the idea of a new art museum in Aspen.

I think museums are great. I think art is great. I just didn’t like the idea of selling public land for a private project and, frankly, I didn’t quite trust the museum people when they described their glorious plans.

A big chunk of my mistrust was based on my feeling about the museum’s official mission to present “the newest, most important evolutions in international contemporary art.”

Setting aside my personal feelings about contemporary art (I’m just an old-fashioned boy), I know that the museum originally displayed art from many eras, in many styles. The change to an exclusive focus on contemporary art made me wonder if the museum could be trusted not to change again, once it had been allowed to buy that great chunk of public land. Why, I wondered, should we trust them?

After that column appeared, I was called by one of the top people at the museum who explained to me that I was completely wrong and that the museum had always ” always! ” been dedicated to contemporary art. Always!

And yet … and yet, I had an e-mail from one of the original founders of the museum saying, “The museum was conceived as a place that would exhibit a wide spectrum of art.” Then that museum founder added, “‘All contemporary all the time’ (that’s the museum’s mantra, not mine) is resulting in a real ho-hum about what’s going on there.”

(The person sent that e-mail, by the way, was actually ultimately in favor of the new museum ” just to be clear.)

I mention this because there still seems to be some talk from the museum supporters about finding a way to go ahead with their plans, even after the voters rejected them.

So, lessons for the art museum: 1. Tell the plain, unvarnished truth; 2. Listen to the voters; 3. Go find another chunk of land and get on with it. (You did say you had all the money, didn’t you?)

But now I think I’ve spent too much time on the art museum, when my real point was that Aspen should take a deep breath and enjoy the delight of having dodged those two enormous bullets.

Main Street will not be turned into a vast Hard Hat Zone, starting immediately. Traffic will not be disrupted. The beautiful sweep of Main Street for those entering town will not be scarred by cratered earth, bulldozers, cement trucks and the rest of the Relentless Army of Progress.

Yes, I know, we’re suffering through hard times, but now we can at least show our best side to those who do come, and perhaps enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet as well.

We’ve dodged a couple of bullets ” and don’t worry, they’ll be shooting at us again soon enough.


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