Developer Mark Hunt’s highest-priority project to start now that Aspen City Council has indicated support for expediting building permits as an economic recovery strategy this summer is the redevelopment of multiple buildings on the Cooper Avenue mall.
The project begins at the corner of Cooper Avenue and Galena Street, where the Bidwell building will be torn down, and includes the Red Onion annex, also set for demolition, as well as renovations of the second-floor spaces above the historic restaurant and building to the west. The corner building will house new retail units, while the second floor space above the Red Onion is slated to become a performance venue and educational space run by Jazz Aspen Snowmass.
“We wanted to focus on that one first because it has the most complexity around staging,” said Chris Bendon, a land-use consultant working with Hunt.
Also on the front burner is the demolition of the Buckhorn Arms building at 730 E. Cooper Ave. across the street from City Market, which is to become a new hotel.
Aspen City Council on Monday agreed to changes in the city’s permit review process and construction regulations to leverage increased construction activity as a means of economic recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown that has crippled the local economy. Concerns about flattening the curve of the deadly pandemic have led to the cancellation of marquee summer events including the Food & Wine Classic, Aspen Ideas Festival and Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience. With fewer tourists expected in town this summer, a council majority agreed that it would be preferable to front load construction onto summer 2020.
Brad Smith, manager of the Red Onion restaurant, which will be enveloped with construction this summer should the project proceed as developers intend, agreed with the logic.
“I do agree there is not a better time to do this as we will be limited in our tourist traffic,” Smith said.
He added that he hopes to open the Red Onion patio as soon as regulations allow, with tables spread apart by at least 6 feet, and that business from construction workers might help him this summer.
The project will impact Red Onion operations because the restaurant’s kitchen is in the annex building. Smith said details are still being worked out, but he hopes developers will provide a new kitchen for the restaurant in the Red Onion building, which may cut into the establishment’s dining room space.
Businesses feeling the pinch of the expedited construction include Ryno’s, a restaurant in the Bidwell building that lost its lease last month. Bamboo Bear, another popular, affordable restaurant, would also be out of its space in the Buckhorn Arms building sooner rather than later under the plan.
Bendon said without the city’s agreement to expedite permits, it is likely that neither the Bidwell nor Buckhorn projects would be starting until winter.
Limiting risk exposure
Phillip Supino, the city’s director of community development, said while there are up to a dozen commercial projects that could be eligible for expedited permits under the process supported by council on Monday, the city is working to develop standards that shield the public from risk and there are no guarantees any project would qualify.
The community development department is currently designing its process and standards for expediting permits and will have them in place in “short order,” Supino said. The core of the proposal involves allowing for a more pronounced phasing of permits. Typically, the city likes to release permits for demolition, excavation, foundation and structure at the same time, but the system supported by council will allow a demolition permit to be released while an excavation and foundation permit is still under review, and for foundation work to proceed before the structural permit is released. The plan also calls for construction activities to take place in the right of way for more of the summer, whereas typically that activity is limited to offseason.
Supino clarified that the city will still require developers to demonstrate that they will be able to build a compliant project before it allows demolition to proceed.
“We have to identify what those bright lines are, what those boundaries are” where the city will be comfortable letting a permit out with less clarity around future phases, versus topics where greater clarity will be required, Supino said.
The city also is working on creating stronger standards for developers to provide surety on their ability to finance a project through to completion.
“We would never put the city in a position where we are issuing a demolition permit without clarity” on future phases delivering what is approved, he said.
Supino noted that since he was hired for the top job in the planning office in December, his goals have included fostering internal process improvements to support better customer service when it comes to permit reviews.
Mayor Torre, at Monday’s meeting, said he supports the notion of making the permit process more efficient, but he was skeptical that allowing up to 12 commercial projects to go forward in central Aspen was a wise direction for this summer, and he didn’t want to see construction on every block.
Councilmember Skippy Mesirow noted the divisiveness of the issue and said while there are many in the community who benefit from construction and development, there are others who feel “left behind” by such activity.
He said his support for expediting building permits is contingent on doing more for community members who don’t benefit from construction and development. He said he hopes to come out of the COVID-19 crisis with an economy that is more local and sustainable.
Asbestos work would start
Bendon said that asbestos remediation on the Bidwell building will likely begin in mid-May. Seeing that it is an old building, it is probably chock full of the stuff, he speculated.
There is a “ton of protocol” regulated by the state around the process, which involves closing off areas contaminated with asbestos and removing the hazardous material using sealed bags. Utility work in the right of way related to moving a fire hydrant and a transformer also will take place during that first phase, Bendon said.
Once the developers get a so-called clean letter from the state certifying the asbestos has been taken care of, the city could release the demo permit, Bendon said. That could start in mid-June.
The Buckhorn Arms building could be two to six weeks behind that schedule, Bendon said.
For the Bidwell building, utilizing the phased permit process, Bendon said he hopes to get the structural building permit in time to begin with vertical construction before winter.