Taster’s Pizza in Aspen will close at the end of the month as the city prepares to begin its remodel of the building that houses the affordable restaurant and government offices.
The city-owned Rio Grande Park-level space that Taster’s has called home since 2008 will remain a restaurant under current plans when the remodel is projected to finish in spring 2021, but whether Taster’s will return is questionable. According to Jeff Pendarvis, capital asset facilities manager with the city, the future tenancy of the space likely will be subject to a request for proposals process, though the Aspen City Council has discretion over how to proceed.
The remodel is part of the larger city office project that involves the redevelopment of the Taster’s building and the neighboring site, formerly home to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. City officials are building a new office complex across the two sites that will cumulatively grow to more than 46,000 square feet. Demolition work has already begun on the ACRA-building side of the site.
Stacy Forster owns Taster’s, which also has a Snowmass Village location that will remain open. He said he is grateful for both the city and the community’s support since he opened his second location 11 years ago.
Since shortly after Taster’s moved in, the length of time the business could count on staying in the space has been a question mark.
“For whatever reason, we have just been hanging in there,” Forster said of his business, one of a handful of upper-valley pizzerias that offer delivery services.
According to the five-year lease established in 2007 with a prior tenant, which Forster bought out, “The city of Aspen desires to enter into a short-term lease pending the outcome and decisions based on the Zupancis/Galena Block Master Plan.” The master plan referenced was an effort dating back to the early 2000s to envision the future use of the civic campus stretching from the library to the new Aspen police headquarters.
In 2009, Aspen voters said no to a proposal that would have turned the Rio Grande building into a new Aspen Art Museum.
In 2013, the city began a facilities master planning process that led to the new offices proposal on the Taster’s/ACRA site. Those plans were debated and amended for years before Aspen City Council approved a new building, including a remodeled restaurant space, in 2017. That approval was stalled, however, by a citizens group that sued the city, seeking a public vote on the project. The lawsuit was settled last year when the city presented voters with a question asking whether they preferred new city offices at the Rio Grande site or in a privately developed building downtown. Nearly 57 percent of voters signed off on the Rio Grande site.
Over the years, “Jeff [Pendarvis] has been our hub,” Forster said. “[The city] has advocated for us the whole time. To his credit, [Pendarvis] has been proactive in letting us know what is coming.”
Since the fall vote and as the city has been finalizing building plans, Pendarvis and Forster have been in regular communication to figure out how long Taster’s could stay in the space. According to Pendarvis, since the city began a month-to-month arrangement with Taster’s in about 2013, the city and the business have agreed that Taster’s could remain through any winter or summer season it starts. With construction needing to start on the Rio Grande building remodel, the city could not guarantee Taster’s lease through the 2019-20 winter season.
“We had a little flexibility to go into September,” Pendarvis said, “but we need to get in there to secure the site.”
The city will begin excavation in September around the building to remove the patio outside Taster’s. A focus of the project as it relates to the restaurant space is to enhance accessibility. Currently, any handicapped access comes via an elevator from the building’s Galena Plaza level two stories up, which is where the restrooms serving Taster’s are located. That elevator is at the end of its life and will be removed, Pendarvis said. Meanwhile, bathrooms, as well as disabled access from the Rio Grande Park level, will be added to the Taster’s space, making it self contained within the building. The city also needs to upgrade the space’s electrical system.
Pendarvis said that the commercial kitchen’s hood is in good shape, meaning not much would have to be done to that aspect of the space. Forster owns the pizza oven and has discretion over whether to remove it or keep it in the space until it is determined whether Taster’s will come back or not, Pendarvis said.
Affordable space hard to find
The lease Taster’s bought from the previous tenant — The Grill Next Door — set the rent at $12,000 per year, increasing by 3 percent annually, not including taxes, insurance and maintenance. The restaurant now pays around $1,360 a month before taxes, insurance and maintenance.
While that is far less than any business could rent a space for in town under current market conditions, Forster noted that the Taster’s space, particularly in the winter, is well off the downtown core with limited parking availability. The location is attractive in the summer because of its proximity to the busy Rio Grande skatepark and ball field, but if it wasn’t for the pizza delivery aspect of the business, Forster said he would likely close in the winter months.
With the pending closure of the Aspen location, Forster said he will focus on the original Taster’s location in the Snowmass Center. That space, however, also is in a building that is expected to be redeveloped; the property’s owner is undergoing a land-use review process with the Snowmass Village Town Council for a project that would remodel and expand the center’s commercial space while adding over 111,000 square feet of residential units.
Forster said he will look for opportunities for another Aspen restaurant but he cautioned that affordable spaces are getting harder to find. He also said he is likely not in a position to wait around for the remodel to finish.
“Truthfully, in a year I don’t know if I will want to come back,” he said. Life must go on and directions change, he added. “We are grateful for being able to be here so long.”