Elizabeth Milias: Aspen’s Taj — our fiscal mausoleum
The Red Ant
The recovery is on. Businesses in Aspen are grappling with reopening amid prescribed restrictions and protocols that frighten even the most cautiously optimistic. The “new normal” is anything but, yet during the weeks of uncertainty that have brought us to this point, we have all learned to adapt, to modify our horizons, and out of necessity we’ve reduced our spending and are more cognizant than ever about staying on a budget.
We’re all in this together. It’s a popular phrase, and we are. If nothing else, we’ve learned firsthand how interconnected our fates and fortunes are, and how simplistic-sounding edicts have the power to trickle down to become raging torrents of destruction.
But why is the city of Aspen behaving differently, as if the rules don’t apply? If we are indeed all in this together, why are they continuing to build, with our tax dollars, the ill-conceived, unsupervised, over-budget, unneeded monolith known locally as the Taj Mahal City Hall when everyone else is trimming their sails? As it turns out, it’s because no one is in charge. The current council barely acknowledges the project, yet alone knows anything about its progress, budget or future programming. They simply deflect when asked, falsely proclaiming that all the decisions were made by their predecessors, despite two of the current members being part of said group, and as if that absolves any of them of current or future responsibility.
Mayor Torre even ran on his support for “a review and changes to the final design and programming of the new city office building” because it does “not appear to address community goals,” only to capitulate to staff the moment he took office. Let us also not forget that this edifice to bureaucratic excess was designed to accommodate future office space needs, never mind we’ve recently learned vis-à-vis the pandemic that “office space” is now effectively dead. If the world wasn’t working differently 10 weeks ago, it certainly is today.
Recall in 2018, local voters chose the Taj in its current location and a remodel of the Armory over a developer’s proposal for a fixed-price new building on Hopkins Avenue and also included the Armory remodel. Anti-developer sentiment coupled with city staff’s desire for shiny new digs heavily influenced the vote for the current project. Initially sold to voters as a city office building, the Taj soon became “the new city hall” and quickly grew to include an obtrusive third floor.
Fearful of likely voter rejection of general obligation bonds to finance the project, the city opted to use Certificates of Participation (COP) which, in addition to being more expensive, restrict the funds to this building specifically and require completion, regardless of cost, by a specified date. Today, $10 million in and already over-budget, there is only a big hole to show for it. Professional outside estimates put the 37,500-square-foot Taj at a minimum of $50 million to complete. Since the COPs only cover $30 million, the city will be on the hook to make up the difference, and that difference continues to grow daily with cost-overruns, change orders and exorbitant consulting fees — the kinds of charges one incurs when no one is watching. And it leaves the Armory remodel entirely unfunded. At a time when city revenue is already down $25 million this year and will likely not recover for several more, this financial liability gets worse by the day.
The solution is not ideal, but because of the hasty and misguided decision to finance construction with COP, several steps are clear:
• Like the rest of us, the city must acknowledge and adapt to its new circumstances. A blank check for construction is typical, but times have changed.
• It’s time to renegotiate the terms of the COP.
• The controversial 7,200-square-foot third floor must immediately come off. This will obviously reduce costs, not to mention preserve the irreplaceable viewplane and access through Galena Plaza, vital for a town-to-riverfront connection.
• Council must step up now and demonstrate ownership, responsibility and accountability, and demand fiscal restraint. At the very minimum, we must stay on-budget with a downsized Taj. Build what you can with what you’ve got, if you must, but nothing more.
As arrogant as it was to bypass the voters and finance the Taj with the more expensive and far more restrictive COP, not to mention the horrendous optics of building it today, it is nothing short of unconscionable for the city to move ahead with a superfluous and bloated vanity project at a time when people are losing their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods.
Cursed from the start, the controversial Taj Mahal City Hall will stand as an uninspired tomb where principled civic planning and noteworthy design are buried. Contact at TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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