Activist Toni Kronberg has filed a petition that could see Aspen City Council’s approval of a new Aspen Art Museum in the downtown core put before voters.
The potential referendum language targeting portions of the art museum land use approval, which was approved as part of a lawsuit settlement, was submitted to City Clerk Kathryn Koch late Thursday afternoon, Kronberg said. Council on Aug. 2 approved an ordinance that approved a new art museum and a neighboring mixed-use building on the 600 block of East Hyman Avenue, where the Wienerstube restaurant and a parking lot currently sit.
The city has five days to tell Kronberg whether the proposed referendum concerns a legislative or an administrative decision. Only legislative decisions — which create new laws or are permanent in nature — can be referred to voters. Administrative decisions — which are made using existing laws — cannot be referred to voters, although they can be challenged before a judge. If the language is approved, Kronberg would have until early September to collect about 600 signatures.
“I hesitated about doing this,” Kronberg said, “but there were so many people who called me” who were concerned about the art museum approval. Kronberg said Aspen voters deserve a chance to weigh in on the proposal.
“I’m basically a conduit to get the question on the ballot,” she said, adding that she also listed Les Holst of Aspen as a contact person regarding the ballot question.
Even if the city approves the language, Kronberg’s question would not be ready in time for the November ballot. State-mandated timelines come into play that would most likely result in a special election this winter.
The new museum and commercial building came out of settlement negotiations between the city of Aspen and 633 Spring Street II, LLC, a development company managed by Aspen businessman Nikos Hecht that owns the Wienerstube property. Hecht and partners — who have since been bought out — sued the city after council in 2008 denied a 49,000-square-foot mixed use building planned for the site at Spring and Hyman streets.
The suit challenged the validity of the Aspen Area Community Plan, which council used as its basis for denying the proposal. Council felt the building was too big and out of character with the neighborhood. The city won the first round of the lawsuit, but the case was set for oral arguments before the Colorado Court of Appeals prior to the settlement announcement, which was made on July 7.
Hecht said he would drop the suit if the city approved a new art museum and mixed use building for the site. The development plan approved by council calls for a 30,000-square-foot museum — 25,000 square feet above ground — and a 15,000-square-foot, three-story, mixed use building in what is currently the parking lot to the west of the Wienerstube.
Hecht and the Aspen Art Museum — which has $28 million in pledges for a new building and is seeking to raise $5 million more — began negotiating on a potential deal for the Wienerstube land after the museum lost a 2009 vote that would have allowed it to build on city-owned land between the courthouse and Rio Grande Park.
The settlement was proposed by Hecht and the museum as a “win-win” that would avoid having a judge rule on the lawsuit and would result in a new, privately-funded public building coming to downtown. Aspen City Council approved the plan on a 4-1 vote, with councilman Steve Skadron dissenting.
In total, the settlement proposal is about one-fifth smaller in above-grade square footage than the plan rejected by council that led to the lawsuit. But the fact that the roof line along Hyman and Spring streets is 47 feet high roused opposition during the one public meeting on the proposal. The museum, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, also employs a wood-screen facade along its exterior.
Museum director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, when asked her reaction to the potential ballot challenge, said she is excited to be proceeding with a new museum downtown. Reaction to the approval has been positive, she said.
“Random people have stopped me in the street to congratulate us,” Zuckerman Jacobson said.
The museum will not be able to shrink the new building’s size by one story, Zuckerman Jacobson said. But, “if we can do what we need to do, and do it in less height, that could come down,” Zuckerman Jacobson said.
She declined to comment on what the museum’s strategy will be if Kronberg’s petition makes it onto a ballot.
A condition of the settlement approval allows either the city or property owners to withdraw the development plan if anyone tries to challenge it with a referendum or in court.
Hecht could not be reached for comment Thursday, but attorney David Lenyo, who is representing 633 Spring Street LLC, said his client would have to take a look at any petition or protest, and “analyze the merits or lack of merits” before deciding how to proceed.
The settlement termination clause originally could only be used within 45 days of the council approval, but that deadline has been lifted.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland expressed frustration that the council’s decision regarding the art museum and the settlement was being subjected to “government by Kronberg.”
Kronberg has been involved in three other referendum petitions — all successful — which have challenged various proposals. Those include an Aspen Chamber Resort Association visitors center at the corner of Main and Galena streets, which was eventually developed into a mostly empty mixed use building across from the courthouse; an improved recycle center at Rio Grande Park which included roofs over the recycle bins; Kronberg also helped lead the campaign to block the sale of city-owned land to the art museum in 2009.
“I don’t know what this accomplishes,” Ireland said of the potential art museum referendum. “She can’t prevent a larger building.”
If the art museum proposal was taken off the table, the city’s land use code allows for Hecht to propose a new application to build up to 45,000 square feet on the site with the standard mix of commercial, office and residential space.
“If you win, it doesn’t mean you get what you are looking for,” Ireland said.