In an abrupt move Tuesday night, Aspen City Council ended lease negotiations with the group it chose over a year ago to operate in the historic powerhouse building.
“... Thank you everyone for joining us tonight. Never in a million years did I think we’d be having this discussion …”
That’s how Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron opened the meeting — in front of a standing-room-only crowd that spilled out of council chambers. But no public comment was accepted during the work session. It had been billed as a continuation of lease negotiations between council and the company working to create a co-work space in the publicly owned old powerhouse on Aspen’s north side. The proposal would’ve also had a food and beverage component, TV production studio, and serve as an event venue.
“I'm very sorry” was said a lot by the four council members present — Bert Myrin was absent — but in just under 30 minutes, they unanimously declared Aspen Power Plant Inc.’s proposal “too divisive,” and ended a year-and-a-half long effort by local businessmen Duncan Clauss, David Cook, Spencer McKnight and Gordon Bronson.
Council member Ann Mullins said the outspoken Oklahoma Flats neighbors, “bitter losers” of the application process, and legitimate but late concerns from neighboring Theatre Aspen were setting up a battle that wasn’t worth fighting.
“It wasn’t just a small suspicion that there was some resistance to this project,” she said. “It was very clear that there wasn't community consensus in support of this project.”
“So, then how did you come to this conclusion?” asked a reporter. “I mean, this is not a compromise, it’s just ‘if you are for it you’re out, if you were against it you won.’”
Mullins responded: “Yes, that’s one way to put it.”
Skadron outlined what will happen to the city building instead.
“I believe we need a temporarily pragmatic approach and that approach might look like a solution where the powerhouse serves as a temporary house for city offices,” he said.
Moving city offices into the powerhouse, according to Skadron, will allow the municipal government to set aside plans for a new City Hall while it instead focuses on the development moratorium that is currently in effect for downtown Aspen and outlying areas.
The decision could be a direct response to critics who threatened to take the powerhouse use issue to the ballot in November via a citizen referendum. Detractors have insinuated that they would make a proposed $48 million new City Hall part of the election campaign.
The council's kibosh on the deal is an about-face from this time last year, when despite community complaints, Aspen Power Plant Inc. was abruptly chosen over other nonprofits as the new tenant.
Skadron defended council’s change of heart on Tuesday night.
“You’ll hear some arguments about preserving the integrity of public process and standing on principle and having conviction,” he said. “But conviction is also a mask for the face of reality. And the reality is this has become an exceptionally complicated and divisive issue.”
Skadron requested city staff schedule a future work session to outline the exact next steps for the use of the powerhouse.