Guest column: Aspen’s unique character at stake
September 19, 2011
The Aspen brand: Aspen has a competitive edge over many other Colorado resort communities because it’s a genuine town with a history and unique character. It is not one of those artificial communities that is little more than a massive real estate development. Our history, the people, and our natural and built environment define this community. To protect our brand, the economic base, we must protect those things that define our character.
The Issue: Aspen’s brand and its unique history is once again under attack by a development application that proposes to raze two of downtown’s most charismatic buildings, Little Annie’s and Tom Benton’s residence-studio-gallery, which sit side by side on East Hyman Avenue.
These two buildings would be leveled under the proposal submitted to the city by Aspen Core Ventures LLC, whose managing partner is Nikos Hecht. The proponents want to replace these two buildings and the adjoining vacant lot with a nearly 32,000-square-foot, three-story, mixed-use building.
The importance of Benton: Tom Benton and his close friend Hunter S. Thompson would turn over in their graves at this development proposal, as the pair dedicated much of their work to fighting against the inappropriate development and commercialization of Aspen. A silk-screen artist, Benton documented political campaigns and life in Aspen through his art for more than 40 years. An architect by training, he designed and built his home, studio and gallery on East Hyman between 1963 and 1973. The unique roof, which he covered with discarded aluminum printing plates from The Aspen Times, sits atop what was his light-filled studio space. He also designed the Crandall Building and a few unique residences around town. Benton’s art, architecture, political activism and his mark on Aspen are chronicled in a new coffee table book published by People’s Press called: “Thomas W. Benton: Artist | Activist.”
Recycle and incorporate an alternative approach: Much of this tragedy can be avoided by a relatively simple redesign of the submitted proposal, using an alternative concept of recycling and incorporating the Benton Building. They could use the Benton Building, located on the center lot, to become the grand entry into the new complex. The distinctive recycled façade would invite people into the grand lobby, from which they could access the flanking retail spaces, the restaurant beyond, and the second floor in the adjoining wings. There could be a small landscaped court on each side of the Benton Building to satisfy the open space requirement. These recessed courts define the entry, and could also provide private access to the residences above in the flanking buildings. The space above the lobby could be recycled and become a part of a very special private residence on an upper floor.
This approach with the Benton Building’s distinctive form as the focal point would retain and pay homage to our history. The result would be a unique building with lots of Aspen character, rather than just another cookie-cutter commercial venture.
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Open space problem: Currently the developer’s proposal contains just 1,100 square feet of open space, although 3,750 square feet are required. The developers are proposing to pay the city $75 per square foot “in lieu” of the required open space as mitigation. But they paid $17,750,000 for the 15,000-square-foot lot, which equates to $1,183 per square foot. As the people of Aspen want open space as defined in the code, why should we be asked to get only $75 per square foot to replace land that cost $1,183 per square foot? This is like a public grant to the developers that is worth almost $3 million – and we lose our precious open space?
Why not designated: The Benton Building is not on the list of Aspen’s historic structures because, apparently, it was “heavily altered,” according to Amy Guthrie, head of the city’s historic preservation department.
Unfortunately, Aspen’s historic preservation office looks at building façades and their style conformity rather than considering creativity, a sense of place and history, and the massing and form. Recycling this building into the project would recognize and support our basic community values.
Because of this limited approach by the preservation office, the developer might argue there should be no reason why they can’t just level the building. However, we would reply that this building is a part of Aspen’s brand, the real history upon which our economic base relies. We must try to protect Aspen’s unique character, our open spaces, the significant built environment, and views – all of which define who we are. We must cherish and guard our base that reinforces our values and brand.
Get involved: Please speak out if you value this building and want it to remain part of Aspen’s story. Express your thoughts to the HPC by emailing: HPC@ci.aspen.co.us, or come to the meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, in Council Chambers at City Hall, where Aspen’s Historic Preservation Commission will be considering this demolition proposal.
Bill Wiener is an architect and a resident of Aspen.
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