Pleas for a smaller footprint for the Pitkin County Library expansion went unanswered, as Aspen City Council approved the project 4-1 on Thursday.
The ultimate fate of the plan will rest with Pitkin County voters, who are expected to be asked in November to raise property taxes to fund half of the $10.3 million project, with the rest coming from a $5 million endowment specifically dedicated to an expansion. The plan would add expanded children and teens’ reading rooms at the library, as well as a public meeting room and a covered patio extending onto Galena Plaza. Altogether, the expansion would add 7,200 square feet to the 32,000-square-foot building, which opened in 1991.
“I think you have an uphill battle when you start going out to the public for support of this project,” said Councilman Torre, who voted “yes” because he found the project met the city’s land-use code. Councilman Steve Skadron cast the dissenting vote “with a heavy heart,” he said, since he supports a smaller library expansion.
The library holds an easement that entitles it to build an expansion going out 44 feet from the current east door of the facility, onto the city park. The crux of the library’s application to City Council was the request for 16 additional feet beyond the 44, a variance that required council approval. The design plan approved by council has the physical building stopping at the 44-foot line, with a canopy — which maxes out at 28 feet high — extending out to the 60-foot line. The canopy includes support beams holding up the expansion, and it extends to the 60-foot line because that allows it to connect to existing support columns in the city’s parking garage below.
With the city’s parking garage set to undergo a repair to its leaky roof, this design process — tying the expansion to support structures in the garage — was seen as a way to ease time, logistical and financial constraints. Councilman Adam Frisch conceded that this seemed like a tail-wagging-the-dog approach.
However, Frisch also pointed out that the extra 16 feet must be important to library planners, because if they weren’t requesting it, they would not have had to go before City Council to proceed with the project. Asking for an additional 16 feet instead, the library has been through two months of land-use review hearings.
Skadron asked library planners if they would be proposing the same design if the garage wasn’t a factor.
Suzanne Jackson, a landscape architect working on the project, said she could not answer the question.
“We were given a set of criteria to which we had to respond, and this is our response,” she said.
Skadron said it’s not his preferred option, and that he would like to see the library stay within the 44-foot easement, even if it meant more disruption to the parking garage and increased costs.
Mayor Mick Ireland said it’s appropriate the public will have the final say on the project. He added that he hoped people would judge the library on its merits, and not cast a protest vote over other projects that have gone forward lately — he mentioned the Aspen Art Museum, the development next to Little Annie’s Eating House and the hospital expansion — that some think are inappropriate.
Since the last council meeting on the library, planners brought down the canopy’s height and added skylights to the structure.
Galena Plaza has been described as an under-used public space, and architects see the covered porch as a way to activate the area, with the life of the plaza and the library meshing together.
For Kent Hudson Reed, however, taking 60 feet out of the pubic park is an issue. Reed runs a theater company that puts on Shakespeare plays in Galena Plaza, and is perhaps the space’s most ardent defender.
Torre said he would work to make sure Galena Plaza and the library integrate well if the expansion goes forward. Further, the library and Reed, or anyone else looking to use the park as a performance space, should figure out a way for the covered patio and a reading porch off the second floor to double as spectator seating.
Head librarian Kathy Chandler said the expansion is necessary so the library can better serve its changing mission in the digital age. The facility is important because it provides computer access to people who don’t have one of their own, and therefore, the library is critical to workforce development.
“You pretty much need a computer to apply for a dishwasher job anymore,” Chandler said.