Elizabeth Milias: The Taj Mahal city hall: really tall and already too small | AspenTimes.com

Elizabeth Milias: The Taj Mahal city hall: really tall and already too small

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant

With construction costs of nearly $34.6 million and debt payback totaling just under $50 million, the Taj Mahal city hall, Aspen’s new edifice to bureaucratic excess, formally opens with a celebration on December 8. The 37,500 square foot monolith entertains ongoing controversy over its size, design, cost, interior programming, lack of housing mitigation and even its necessity.

Referred to as the Taj Mahal due to its ridiculous largesse, our monument took on various looks and functions depending on who was on city council when key decisions were made. Originally imagined as “city offices,” the Taj grew dramatically to become today’s sole seat of city government.

In 2015, city staff had fine-tuned its desires for a “one roof” solution for local government and asked the voters to decide an advisory question, “Which use for the Aspen Armory Site (city hall) do you prefer for a long-range, 50-year plan? Community Use or City Offices (choose one.)” When “Community Use” narrowly prevailed, despite the non-binding nature of the measure, the city took the outcome as a big win and a greenlight for its grandiose plans along Rio Grande Place.

However, in early 2017, the city was sued for abuse of power and had to contend with a referendum petition for the right to vote to overturn council’s land use approvals for the Taj. The suit stemmed from council’s conversion of open space without voter approval, which was required by the city charter. Then remarkably, in a three-day period, 760 signatures were collected in opposition to council’s land use decision, forcing action. The city deemed the petition effort a failure due to “insufficient signatures” and a “missed deadline,” but when challenged in court, it was the city that had erred. The petitioners had prevailed. And when the city tried to have the abuse of power suit dismissed, it was deemed to have legal standing, leaving the city with three choices: put the issue to a vote, appeal the judge’s ruling or start over elsewhere.

Enter developer Mark Hunt and the building he owns at 517 E. Hopkins in 2018. Hunt proposed a turnkey $23 million sale of 22,000 square feet of his building to the city that would have included a scrape-and-replace construction cost of $13.5 million on top of $9.5 million in assessed land value. In addition to the existing 22,000 sf in the Armory and potentially 11,500 square feet beneath Connor Park, Hunt’s “annex” proposal would have contributed to over 54,000 total square feet of office space. But the acquisition had to be approved by voters. Heavy anti-developer sentiment from city hall and clever “either-or” ballot language tilted the scales toward the Galena Plaza location, which promised a similar price tag for the one-roof solution.

Despite years of citizen lobbying and feedback, little public input was taken into account while the unsightly wall of a building grew, effectively closing off pedestrian access from town along the vital Galena Street corridor, aside from a steep, narrow staircase. Aspen’s town-to-river connection is now irreparably broken. There is no longer a visual sightline from Paradise Bakery straight down to Rio Grande Park. We had the opportunity to physically integrate “the riverfront district” with our commercial core in what had once been an 8-minute walk, but now the largest grade change in the descent is the exact location of our Taj.

Historically, Rio Grande Park and “riverfront district” had been a hub of activity, first as the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad yard, then as a lead and zinc concentrator, and later the city dump. By the mid-1970’s it was a parking lot that featured a farmer’s market. In the 1980’s when Clark’s Market and the Post Office were built, commerce had truly arrived in the area near where increasing numbers of residents were now living. By 1989, the community art park was the precursor to Aspen Theater in the Park, and Galena Plaza was developed into the parking garage. ACRA’s offices and the Pitkin County Library followed. By 2012, Obermeyer Place, the John Denver Sanctuary, the stormwater wetlands project, recycling center and skate park filled in, followed by a new police station and Pitkin County offices in 2018. Today, the Taj Mahal city hall has been built on the last remaining parcel. This hodge-podge of disjointed buildings provides little vitality and has succeeded in cutting the park and riverfront off from town.

But, a grand staircase awaits. Touted by city manager Sara Ott as “the signature piece of the building,” this centerpiece now serves to connect the three floors of our 47-foot tall new city hall that is already 6,000 square feet too small for our needs. Human resources and the parking department don’t fit; they’re now in the Rio Grande Building. ACRA is in the Old Powerhouse but will eventually move into the remodeled Armory. When remodeled, the Old Powerhouse will house the IT, capital assets, special events and transportation departments, as well as provide storage. Meanwhile, analysis paralysis plagues “the future of the Armory” discussions, “activation of Galena Plaza” plans, and whether or not a restaurant will go into the “white box” in the Rio Grande Building where Taster’s once was.

Remind me, what exactly have we accomplished?

The critical commitments affecting today’s Taj were made in the spring of 2019. You can thank former mayor Steve Skadron, former council members Adam Frisch and Ann Mullins, and council member Ward Hauenstein for their “hurry-up” decision-making during a lame duck session, and sitting council members Rachel Richards and Skippy Mesirow, and Mayor Torre, for their unwillingness, despite the latter’s campaign promises, to re-evaluate them. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net