The Aspen City Council reversed course from previous directives to keep the seat of government in the Armory Building, the current site of city hall, during a work session on Tuesday night.
During the meeting, council members got their first glimpse of the potential master configuration of civic offices in the form of conceptual drawings of the new Galena Plaza civic building as well as the Armory Building. The project team, which includes city staff and Charles Cunniffe Architects, presented interior mock-ups with city departments assigned to specific office spaces between the two buildings.
While city staff have been working on these plans for years, they were operating under the direction of the previous council. Interim assistant city manager Scott Miller said staff has heard enough changes from those directives since the new council was sworn in last month and wanted to check back on a series of big-picture items.
“You are a new council and we need new direction,” Miller said.
Three of the questions before council Tuesday night had to do with the overall use of Aspen’s civic buildings. The former council gave direction to keep city council chambers and senior administration in the Armory Building, for historic and symbolic reasons. The new lineup of public officials questioned that direction, and opened up the interior programming for discussion.
“How much are we able to inform the decisions that are being made?” Mayor Torre asked the design team.
“100 percent,” replied Jack Wheeler, the city’s representative on the project.
With that door open, the council discussed whether a better use of overall space would be to place council chambers in the newly constructed building at Galena Plaza once it is complete.
During the multiphase construction project to build Galena Plaza and update the Armory Building, council members will need to meet in the new building, at least temporarily. Once Galena Plaza is complete, the offices in the Armory Building will be moved to the new building while the armory is updated. Planned improvements include a skylight through the top floors and updating the basement council chambers.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein brought up a 2015 vote in which the public signaled their choice to the city to vacate the Armory Building altogether and change the use from offices to community programming.
Richard Lai spoke during public comment, saying the council had an irretrievable community opportunity to create a public commons in the armory. Lai helped create Aspen’s now iconic pedestrian mall.
He said using the armory as a business incubator and marketplace for local vendors and chefs would make it a year-round tourist destination that would benefit the city and local entrepreneurs.
While council members spoke well of Lai’s suggestions, some acknowledged that it could only become a reality if the development at Galena Plaza continued with plans to house a 2,500-square-foot meeting space on its third floor. Disagreement about the meeting space led Miller to add its existence to his list of questions for council for the evening.
Torre and councilmember Skippy Mesirow both expressed doubt that the space was needed. While staff pointed out that the square footage was compensating for lost meeting space through the redesign, Mesirow questioned whether the city should be building for maximum capacity.
“Do we build all of our roads for peak traffic? I hope no,” Mesirow said.
As currently programmed, city staffers would receive, on average, about 150 square feet less space per employee than standard recommendations. Torre said he’d rather see extra space going to employee quality of life than to a public meeting area.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards also spoke on behalf of city staff. Space for elected officials in the new building, with a view of Rio Grande Park, makes more sense for staff who would use it during a full work week, rather than the two nights a week that council members would use it.
The council was unanimous in its direction to Miller regarding another city-owned building, the former power plant. The building is temporarily housing city offices on its second floor and serving as a tourist information center run by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association on the ground floor. Council members made it clear that ACRA would not get to stay in the power plant indefinitely, and that that building should only be used for community use, somewhat along the lines of Lai’s suggestion, or more akin to the Red Brick Center for the Arts, which houses nonprofits for minimal rent.
The conceptual drawings presented Tuesday night show ACRA running the tourism center out of the ground floor of the new building, with their offices operating on the top floor.
Torre used the analogy of a puzzle for the civic building layout moving forward as the design team decides which departments fit with others best, which ones need access to the public and which ones need private meeting spaces for legal and personnel issues.
“What’s necessary and not necessary are the things that I am still thinking about,” Torre said. “I’m trying to find the corner pieces.”