Officials within Aspen City Hall are concerned that owners of the Mother Lode have employed deceptive tactics in trying to sell the luxury downtown property.
The Mother Lode, a three-story expansion built onto the site of the longtime restaurant of the same name, was approved in 2005 as a mixed-use building with two free-market condos, one of which is on the third floor; the other on the second, along with two affordable housing units. The commercial space is located on the ground floor and in the basement. The entire building is currently on the market for $27.4 million, while just the commercial space is listed at $3.5 million. The building has been on the market since its completion.
In letters sent to building owners, deputy planning director Jennifer Phelan points to a number of advertisements that would seem to indicate the project is being marketed as one residence, complete with “staff apartments” and a “corporate entertaining area” in what is supposed to be the basement commercial space.
For example, in a letter dated Feb. 14, Phelan notes a video advertisement posted to You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vapAshQLw5k ) that describes the Mother Lode as an “exclusive Aspen home” and shows the living room of the second-floor free-market condo decorated like a bedroom.
“The clear implication of [various marketing materials] was that the entire building could be considered a single residence,” Phelan wrote in the two-page letter, which followed up on a similar letter from October. “The land-use approvals were not for a single residence.”
The basement commercial space has been fashioned as a “corporate entertaining area” including a full bar, media center, sitting room and two large bathrooms with steam showers.
“The land-use approvals do not permit the commercial space to be used for residential purposes and certainly not to expand the size of the residential unit,” Phelan’s February letter reads.
Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission member Bert Myrin said he became suspicious when he saw a blurb on the social pages of Aspen Magazine, showing scenes from a party held at the property during last year’s Food & Wine Classic weekend and identifying the Mother Lode as a “three-story residence.”
The building does not yet have a certificate of occupancy (CO), and thus, is not required to have anyone living in the worker housing units.
“My biggest concern is that there are two affordable housing units that are sitting empty because they do not have their CO,” Myrin said.
Sean Gooding, representing the building’s ownership group, identified as Mother Lode Investors LLC of Carbondale, declined comment, citing ongoing discussions with the city. Phelan said she has not received an official written response to the city’s letters from representatives of the Mother Lode, but that she has been in contact with the owners’ attorney.
Heidi Houston, who holds the residential real estate listing on the building, said advertisements have been straightforward about the requirements of the building’s approvals. Advertisements have shown that the occupants of the affordable housing units must be qualified with the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, she said. However, who ever buys the building has the legal right to hand pick the first occupants of the housing units, as long as they are locals who qualify through the local housing office.
There is nothing wrong with one owner purchasing the entire building, Houston pointed out. The “corporate entertainment area” also qualifies as commercial space, she said.
Aspen City Attorney Jim True said whether the corporate entertainment area — which has the appearance in the video of a luxury man cave — qualifies as commercial space “is the question we are trying to answer.”
Local builder John Olson, at a City Council meeting last month, said high-end Aspen condos would have a much easier time of selling if they could be combined. Olson built the Mother Lode and told and the council he is a partner in the project.
“The Mother Lode would have sold many times over if the top two floors were connected,” Olson said at the April 9 meeting. “Whether that is what was advertised or not ... or if the sales team did that, I have no idea.”
Some council members brought up the Mother Lode during a discussion about lowering building heights and restricting free-market condos in downtown Aspen; Councilman Adam Frisch said he thought there was “less than honest” marketing of the property.
Olson noted that in a condo building near Koch Park that was recently remodeled, a buyer was interested in purchasing the top two units and combining them. The buyer and the family bought both units anyway and “are just going to have to live in a tough situation,” Olson said.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland decried the Mother Lode as the poster child for why the city should lower allowed building heights and restrict free-market condos in downtown Aspen. Along with the former Crystal Palace dinner theater down the block on Hyman Avenue, the “forces of the market” have replaced “active uses with passive, speculative ones.”
“There’s a consequence in letting the market do what it can do because it can make a dollar,” Ireland said.