When La Cocina lived on what is now Restaurant Row, it was never as messy.
But the fabled eatery with its terrace, built out of a Victorian home on Hopkins Avenue, was scraped and replaced for what is now the Ute City Building and its Ute City Grill, known to many at Walt’s place.
But the restaurants there — the grill and Syzygy downstairs — aren’t the problem. The problem is on the lofty heights above Restaurant Row, where a penthouse on one of town’s hottest streets could fetch a few million.
And one did. The 3,500-square-foot pad was part of a sale for $6.3 million in 2010, up on the third floor. You’d have thought the owners, having snatched such a swanky nest downtown, would be on Cloud Nine.
And that wasn’t all. Living there, you could enjoy periodic free concerts courtesy of the Aspen Brewing Co., upstairs next door, immediately to the west. They’ve been staging them for three years.
But the concerts became the problem, what looks to be a case of class warfare has erupted, and the city is preparing to come down on the brewery for violating the decibel limits proscribed in the city’s code and the wealthy couple for other violations in its grab bag of tricks.
It is a clumsy, ill-advised and messy spot for the city, and most of its residents would advise them to opt out of such a mess. But, being City Hall, they probably won’t.
Instead, the twin noise cases, which go to the municipal court, known as Judge Brooke’s place, on Oct. 7, have drawn a red line. Aspen wants to have it both ways. It wants to be a quiet little hamlet where people can enjoy peace and quiet in their own homes with their doors closed. But it also depends on places like Restaurant Row to produce the reputation as a hot nightspot that makes Aspen an international draw.
And what is a hot spot without live music?
The owners who bought the third-floor Ute City Building penthouse have run to police a half-dozen times recently complaining about the noise that Restaurant Row so proudly produces. The police, happy to oblige, have issued a pair of citations stemming from two noise-meter readings Aug. 2 and 10. The readings came to between 74 and 88 decibels. They aren’t supposed to exceed 60 after 9 p.m.
So now, a collision is set, as the couple isn’t easing off and the brewery has pled not guilty. Nobody can see that they did anything wrong. The brewery provides live music for cozy crowds of up to 60 because it’s decided to dress for success with such music ever since Jimmy’s began its salsa nights across the street on the Row. Where did they go wrong?
The complaining couple in the penthouse apparently thought they were buying a certain zone of privacy and quiet as part of their $6.3 million package. In a separate controversy, they say they were promised access to their upstairs digs through a front-side elevator that’s become private since they locked its access. That consigns the mere affordable housing tenants upstairs to the Dumpster Alley out back. The city claims the elevator is for common access under the law.
Undoubtedly much of the spat will come down to real estate representation. Who was told what, and when? Did they come to expect quiet on Restaurant Row where others would give up various body parts just to be living anywhere near such action? Did they come to expect private access, or did were they actually promised it? If so, by whom?
The presence of “employee” units built there is commonplace, as part of an incentive in which the city allows more commercial space to be built if the owner allows controlled-price units in the same location. That makes for the unusual neighbors — some who must sneak into their joints from Dumpster Alley while others rightfully say that $6.3 million is a high price to pay and undoubtedly has noise limits built in.
Next, the brewery gets to decide if it wants a jury trial. It should insist on one. Juries are far freer to “nullify” prosecutions by deciding that cases are fundamentally inappropriate. They need no excuses. Where a judge and the city may feel bound by the law, juries can go beyond such bounds and simply declare that such cases are bogus (think of marijuana prosecutions in the last decade). Law schools teach such cases as the “law formation process” by which laws are enacted and tossed.
The city could also decide the case is not worth its time, rather than get dragged into an unpopular and private fight which it will harm its street cred and make it appear out of synch with voters who elected its City Council.
What about the embattled residents who feel they did nothing wrong? Already beat up in the papers and on the streets, they should be able to at least get a series of informal city hearings at which a mediated settlement might be possible. The brewery’s owner has already given them his cell phone number. They could get a few invites to the concerts. Judge Brooke, in municipal court, could ask colleague Judge Erin, over in county court, for help. She has made something of a name for herself by offering mediation for her cases.
The question a world-class ski resort should be asking is not how loud the music was. The right question is, how good was it?
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sunday