ISSUE #152: ANTipathy for Mediocrity  4/22/19
April 23

"We don't need no education
 We don't need no thought control
 No dark sarcasm in the classroom ...
 ...All in all it's just another brick in the wall."

                                                       -- Pink Floyd


Congratulations to Torre, Aspen's new mayor!  In early April, Torre defeated Ann Mullins in a run-off election, 1527-1184, a 56-44% margin.  For the first time in recent memory, Aspen will have a new mayor and two new council members when the new council is sworn in on June 10.  Opportunities abound.  The sitting lame-duck council has officially been replaced by candidates who ran on platforms of shaking up the status quo, implementing far better and transparent communication and outreach, and changing the culture of city hall. Let's do it!
This is also good news for The Red Ant's press for changes to the new city office building.  During the recent run-off campaign, Torre issued the following statement in response to the growing outcry over the lack of public process for the design of building, "I support a review and changes to the final design and programming of the new city office building. The current iterations have unclear space/program allocations, do not appear to address community goals, and provide the city of Aspen employee generation and growth without mitigating for those impacts.  I support new office space being built at the Rio Grande location.  However, I share the concerns I have heard from others, that the current design is not as efficient inclusionary and complete as it should be. This municipal building is a chance to exemplify our current values and aspirations.  As such, it deserves careful attention."  Bravo, Torre.  Finally, some vision!

During the current and longer-than-usual lame-duck session, there is also an unprecedented leadership void in city hall (no city manager, no assistant city manager).  With zero oversight for the next 7 weeks, the environment is ripe for lots of staff-driven shenanigans, and the nonsense has already begun. You can bet that after reading the last issue (THE RED ANT #151), staff is freaking out.  Despite there being no completed plans, no publicly available construction schedule and no building permit, a rush to vertical construction is on the horizon.  (The current utility work - essential for whatever is eventually built there - is slated to pause at the end of May for the summer season and wrap-up in the fall.  Former-city-employee-who-is-now-in-the-big-bucks-as-owner's-rep-on-the-project Jack Wheeler recently announced that he will be pouring the foundation on June 1.  Anything to force the current plans into place despite their mediocrity. And to start collecting his inflated fee.) 
And, Sara Ott, our interim city manager, is already demonstrating how out of her depth she is in the role. In light of the current kerfuffle over the demonstrated lack of public process for the new city office building, Sara has publicly made some laughable claims to the tune of "This is an exciting time for our community to collaborate and celebrate the mountain-to-river connection," and "The city has been working on the bigger picture of connectivity from Aspen Mountain to the river for many years," never mind there has NEVER been ANY discussion of this at ANY point in the project's history until recently when The Red Ant and others pointed it out. And never mind, there is zero "connectivity" featured in any of the current plans, unless you count a nod toward better landscaping, and I don't.  Nice try, though, Sara.  But revisionist history doesn't fly with city hall watchdogs who have been watching for years. (We did note your stated promise to include the public in discussions this summer regarding interior programming and will hold you to it!)
Enter Torre. He is a disruptor. And he is also the new mayor. The Red Ant plans to support him in shaking things up.  Aspen's government is well-known for accepting and advocating for mediocrity.  It would be so much easier for The Red Ant to be an advocate FOR great things, but the city simply doesn't do great things.  If Torre can bring great things forward (like giving this ill-conceived and uninspiring project another look before starting construction, for starters), then I am all-in as an advocate. Thank you in advance, Torre.  I agree that it's far better to pump the brakes now than to own this mess and have to clean it up later.

Taking a page from the thaw in Sino-American relations in the 1970s (think Nixon's Ping-pong diplomacy), several of Aspen's community leaders, including former mayor Bill Stirling, Harry Teague and Howie Mallory recently convinced council to discuss their ideas for the new building, which focused specifically on landscaping issues and future collaboration with the parks department on external components (as opposed to the building's design itself). Council bought in to the necessary "river-to-mountain" connection, yet only gave permission for changes to landscaping aspects of the project, in collaboration with the parks department. The Red Ant absolutely agrees that landscaping decisions can contribute positively to the building as it relates to connecting town to Rio Grande Park.  Absolutely.  A lively and beautifully landscaped Galena Plaza will be fantastic.  However, respectfully, landscaping is only a band-aid for the grievous wound: the uninspiring and ill-conceived building itself. My guess is that the parks department won't want to spare too much of its budget putting lipstick on this pig. Sure, tulip diplomacy is a great first step.  We know from history that such inroads can lead to great change. But a few additional daffodils along the Jail Trail are not going to diminish the "wall" that the building itself creates. 

Notably, however, tulip diplomacy begins to address one of many aspects of the new building that are glaringly lacking.  Thank you, gentlemen, for your leadership, your vision and your very diplomatic work getting council to slow down, focus and hear you out. I am very hopeful that your input will positively impact future landscaping decisions. 

Nothing against tulips.  They are quite likely my favorite flower. And as I said, fabulous landscaping in this civic area is indeed important. (Of course it is, this is Aspen. We love our landscaping!)  Also important, however, when looking at a $46-$49 million project that includes 37,500sf of office space for our local government, are aspects of the building that truly address our community values and ideals. These aspects include: 
  • Housing:  It's appalling for the city to give themselves "credits" for housing built in the 1990s to avoid mitigating for housing now! 
  • Building Height: 47' is way too high and serves to visually finish off the "city wall" that will forever block town from Rio Grande Park and beyond, especially when the entire top floor is earmarked for 7200sf of unnecessary meeting space!
  • Programming: To date, the design is still incomplete on what's being built inside, aside from the absurd amount of meeting space.
  • Energy efficiency: Shouldn't this building be a showcase for the world's most cutting-edge technology?
  • Transportation: Imagine soon-to-be-ex-mayor Steve Skadron, he of Aspen's war on cars and feckless mobility lab experiments, defining his legacy with zero transportation improvements!?
Imagine if we'd actually had a public process and not Barry Crook's sorry excuse for "outreach" when, in show-and-tell fashion, he placed foam-mounted sketches on easels and told people what the city was doing?  If citizens had been given the opportunity to weigh in, think of how the new building would be a net zero showpiece, with visionary parking and transportation solutions, proper subsidized housing mitigation in line with what the city requires of all developers, appropriate programming where what is built is a true reflection of what is actually needed, and the building itself would actually adhere to the city's own building code. But no.

Now that Torre has been elected, however, A LOT is still possible. Tulip diplomacy has cracked open the door for the community to additionally weigh in on other aspects of the project. Ward has indicated that he wants "story poles" erected to visually convey the new building on the actual site, now that demolition work is nearly complete. This is yet another positive step. But lame-duck councilman Adam Frisch is fighting this. Hmmm, another typical decision by the sitting council that flies in the face of transparency. Adam tells The Red Ant that if the public sees the story poles now ("after the fact" as he puts it), they will immediately be shocked at the bulk, mass and height.  Of course they will.  It's one big, ugly, dense box.  And it's hardly "after the fact" when the plans are not yet complete, so this is EXACTLY the time to erect story poles!  It's curious to see Adam fight this so vehemently. But he did acquiesce, "If the new council plans to open up that discussion (on bulk, mass and height), they can."  Of course they can.  I just hope they will. And notably, after the passage the emergency moratorium of 2017 (reducing building heights to two stories or 28 feet) which excluded properties owned by the city, Adam justified this stating, "The city can be relied upon to restrict itself." Right.

The Red Ant, recognizing the current council's lack of appetite for making bold decisions (likely the reason three of them are on their way out, why Ann lost her mayoral bid and Ward is thankful he didn't have to run this cycle), suggests two imminently do-able solutions, neither of which change the footprint of the building. While not the best possible outcome, these solutions would go a long way toward much-needed improvement:

1.  Eliminate the top floor.  We do not need 7200sf of new public meeting space. WATCH this quick and compelling 2-minute video for a shocking example of how much under-utilized public meeting space is already in the immediate area. The city claims a "meeting space crunch" when none exists.  And at $653/sf (estimated), the cost savings would be nearly $5 million. Furthermore, this unnecessary third floor "box" creates the 47' height that is so objectionable. Getting the building down to 32'-34' would activate Galena Plaza for the highly desired (and frankly necessary) "connectivity" that anyone with a vision for this project acknowledges is vital.  And with that top floor gone, a little tulip diplomacy could well lead to far better capitalization of that unique parcel as it serves to unite town and the Riverfront District. (Needless to say, the elimination of the top floor would additionally remove the future potential for the city to move its entire enterprise out of the Armory and under one roof, a plan rejected earlier by voters but still conspiratorially swirling inside city hall.)
2.  Mitigate properly for housing.  What's good for the goose is good for the gander.  No more double standards!  The city should NOT play by a different set of rules than other developers and should certainly pay its own way for housing mitigation. The city should set an example. How about 100% mitigation? Show some leadership! It is stunning how councils (past and present) continually bemoan the lack of and need for more subsidized housing and in the same breath approve a building that skirts new housing mitigation?  Even more appalling is that the city says that housing they built in the 1990s paid it forward, and those units are suddenly now "credits" toward housing mitigation for this 2020 construction. Seriously. You can't make it up. Do we have a housing shortage or not, people?  Properly addressing the housing mitigation for this building wouldn't change a thing with the building itself, but it would be one giant step toward doing right for the community.

It is never too late to pause a bad project and re-group, especially when the bad project has yet to begin construction.  Let's get story poles up post haste.  The public (who is incidentally financing this thing) has a right to see what the city is planning. Yes, there will be financial repercussions if we push the pause button, but to accept mediocrity simply because the project is already in the pipeline is not strong leadership.  And accepting mediocrity is not the Aspen way.  Tulips are just the beginning.  They're a great component, but not likely to be appreciated by future generations to the degree that an inspiring, efficient and notable building that connects the urban core to Rio Grande Park will be.  If that is simply a bridge too far (and I pray it's not), at the very least, we can easily reduce the building by 7200 unneeded square feet (by losing the top floor) and properly mitigate for housing. Let's not be pansies now.

With our new council named, it's not too early to support them. In that vein, The Red Ant says, "PLEASE sign the petition" HERE.  This is important. It's not a legal document nor is it binding, but it WILL show Torre and his new council that the community encourages them to give the new city office building a good hard look. Please add your name.  (You do not have to be an Aspen voter.)
If you agree that Aspen can do SO MUCH BETTER, join us!  Let's work together to build the best building we can.

Check out Paul Menter's recent Aspen Daily News column on the subject HERE.
Article originally appeared on The Red Ant (
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