Aspen voters on Tuesday backed a plan to build a new office building on publicly-owned land near the library over a counter proposal to buy downtown real estate from a private developer.
Option B won decisively in the returns posted Tuesday night for city of Aspen Ballot Issue 2D, carrying 57 percent to 43 percent for Option A, with roughly 80 percent of the vote counted.
The winning plan will see a 37,000-square-foot building built on the sloping site abutting the public parking garage, between Galena Plaza and Rio Grande Place, for a projected cost of $26.1 million. Aspen City Council approved the project in April 2017, but citizens opposed sued in an attempt to put it on the ballot. After a legal battle, the city agreed to an either-or vote between the Galena plan and a counter proposal negotiated with developer Mark Hunt for space in two buildings he controls on Hopkins Avenue, across the street from city hall.
“I am relieved to know that the democratic process worked,” Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said, noting that Option B went through years of vetting before a faction led by Toni Kronberg of Snowmass Canyon — who has opposed many city projects over the years — “tried to throw a wrench in the process.”
“I am glad the community pushed back,” Skadron said. “I think the community is better off over the next 100 years with this option.”
Hunt’s proposal, which lost at the polls, would have seen the city pay $32.5 million for just under 27,000 square feet of office space, most of which would be at 517 E. Hopkins Ave., the longtime home of the Aspen Daily News until 2015, which is set to be torn down and redeveloped this spring. Additional space would have been on the second floor of the next-door 201 S. Galena St. building, in the space formerly occupied by the Aspen Kitchen restaurant.
Most of Aspen’s elected officials came out in favor of Option B and a city-commissioned appraisal showed that the contract price negotiated with Hunt was $5.5 million to $7.5 million above market value. The premium price attached to the smaller amount of square footage, compared to Option B, was likely a deterrent.
“I thought it was a feel-good solution that required paying a developer a premium,” Skadron said of Option A.
Other prevailing sentiments on behalf of the Option B campaign included a skepticism about how well suited the Hunt plan would be to the city’s needs. The Hopkins Avenue office space would have left the city short on the amount officials say is needed, meaning some offices would still be located on the site of where Option B would be built.
Concern was also expressed over converting commercial space designed for private businesses into city offices. Much of the space the city would purchase from Hunt would also be in the basement of 517 Hopkins, while the 201 Galena space’s conversion of a restaurant into city offices could be seen as a blow to vitality.
Arguments in favor of Hunt’s Option A held that sitting offices in buildings that will be developed anyway, instead of adding an additional construction project to town on the city’s land, is preferable. The Option A campaign also took issue with the size of the Galena office proposal, which will be 47 feet tall on the north elevation — which is the Rio Grande Park side — though the height will be built into a hill.
Hunt had offered the city a discount on a future remodel of the historic city hall building.
Steve Goldenberg, a plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking an up-or-down vote on the Galena offices plan, said it is “inexcusable” that the city wouldn’t put the project on the ballot in the first place. He noted that a ruling from the district court judge found that the matter was legally referable, contradicting arguments put forward by city hall.
The judge later dismissed the suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs never gathered enough signatures to force the vote.
“I wish we had won, but we got it on the ballot,” Goldenberg said.
Aspen’s City Manager Steve Barwick has argued that voters don’t see that they have anything to gain from new government offices, which is why most governments don’t put such plans up for an election.
Skadron said that his favorite aspect about Option B is that it will take what he termed a “little used” park — Galena Plaza — and turn it into the front porch of a public building. The plaza’s footprint will also expand.
“It becomes a great, green space where we interact with each other and our government,” he said.