Editorial: City of Aspen should abandon new building and opt for Hopkins place | AspenTimes.com

Editorial: City of Aspen should abandon new building and opt for Hopkins place

On Monday, members of Aspen City Council have a chance to redeem themselves with the public by scrapping their plan to develop a municipal office building near Rio Grande Park and let a developer build space for government employees across the street from City Hall.

On the table is an offer from Mark Hunt, who, along with investors, owns the building at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. The city is under contract to buy a yet-to-be-developed building, and let Hunt develop it and deliver 21,400 square feet of office space.

The transaction would be for $23 million, which includes the space and the cost of developing a new building.

The deal is contingent on council approval (expected Monday) and a 45-day due diligence period, during which time the city can end the contract with no financial risk.

We say go for it and don’t look back. It is a far better deal than the city’s plan to create 37,500 square feet of new development between Galena Plaza and Rio Grande Place.

There is no question that the city needs more office space — not just because it spends a half-million dollars annually on rent in other locations, but also city staff should have a nice environment to work in. They also need to be centralized for efficiency’s sake.

We would have been OK with the Rio Grande/Galena Plaza plan if not for three citizens who brought lawsuits against the city for approving an ordinance last year that allows the development.

Because of the legal wrangling, the project is on hold and will be until the lawsuits are resolved. Aspen residents Steven Goldenberg and Marcia Goshorn, along with Snowmass Canyon resident Toni Kronberg, are asking a judge to allow them to collect signatures from Aspen voters to put the development to a referendum.

The city doesn’t want the public to vote on it, because the likelihood of voters approving a government expansion project is very slim. As the city manager said, that’s as popular as mandatory colonoscopies.

Before Hunt came to the table, we would have suggested that the city stand down and stop fighting in court and let the public decide.

Now we say that the 517 E. Hopkins Ave. building is the best option the city has in front of it. And here is why:

• Cost. The city’s project at Rio Grande/Galena Plaza is estimated to cost $22.6 million. But as the lawsuits drag on for what could be years, construction costs are predicted to increase as much as 10 percent annually.

Yes, we recognize that the Hopkins building is 16,100 square feet less for roughly the same price as the city’s building. But time is money, so as long as the city keeps fighting the lawsuits, the Rio Grande/Galena Plaza plan will keep getting more expensive.

• Timing. Letting Hunt deliver a turnkey project will give city employees a better place to work quicker than the government doing it on its own.

The Hopkins deal also will allow the city to stop renting space all over town to accommodate various departments, saving money sooner.

• Impact. The Hopkins project already has approvals and is going to be built as a commercial property anyway. It is just replacing what is already there. The city’s Rio Grande/Galena Plaza plan is new development and additional square footage, and the community has enough of that going on right now.

Hunt had proposed a redeveloped Conner Park behind City Hall and a tunnel under Hopkins Avenue to connect the buildings.

We support a new park because it would offer a far superior public space than what is there now, and it could serve as a middle ground between the two properties.

But we say no tunnel. It’s unnecessary. Put a jacket on and walk across the street.

We know there are more details to come and council should make sure it gets what it needs for city employees. But at first glance, Hunt’s Hopkins plan is the best alternative for the public and the municipal government.

The Aspen Times editorial board is made up of the publisher, editor and members of the Times’ staff.