Volunteer board gets final say on some downtown development

Sep 1, 2016

The historic preservation commission and Aspen City Council disagreed about which expansion version St. Mary's catholic church should use for a new event space.

  Aspen’s historic preservation commission (HPC) is a volunteer board with a lot of power. The group reviews developments within designated historic districts in town. HPC makes the final call for many new buildings — even going against City Council recommendations.


The HPC reviews about 50 projects a year. Big developments in 2016 that the group has seen include a new public safety building for Aspen Police, St Mary’s Catholic Church expansion and an expansion of the Aspen Meadows reception area. In 2014, the commission approved a handful of projects from prominent landlord Mark Hunt.

Development proposals are reviewed by HPC if they are in a historic district or have some type of historic landmark status. The board looks at staff recommendations as well as historic preservation guidelines when reviewing projects. It takes about six months for a project to be reviewed by the board because of the sheer volume of cases in front of it.

Willis Pember is the chair of the commission. Speaking in his architecture offices, he said the name of the commission is misleading. It is not its intent to make sure all development looks “historic”.

“It leads to a certain ‘disneyfication’ if you are mimicking and aping what has gone on in the past,” Pember said. “And I think a lot of people see the board, by virtue of our name, as upholding traditional values in design and that’s generally not the case.”    

Amy Simon is the historic preservation officer for the city. She said Aspen’s genuine history sets it apart from other Colorado resort towns, and that is apparent through all the eras of architecture still present today.

“There’s lots of ski resorts you could go to that were built 10 years ago, you're not going to have the same experience,” said Simon.

The HPC only looks at exterior design; it cannot keep someone from gutting a historic home. Projects with that seek variances from the land use code go before the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council. But if no variances are needed, then the final stop is HPC. So, Hunt’s potential to change downtown Aspen is in the hands of these seven citizens.

Though City Council members can put in their two cents. This past spring, the commission went head to head with the Aspen City Council over St Mary’s Church’s development plans. The council was not happy with HPC’s approval of an 8,000 foot expansion, and asked that the commission reconsider. The council does not get the final call though, and the members of HPC held strong with their approval.

The council does, however, decide who is on the commission. Citizens volunteer and are interviewed and assigned by council. The majority of the council are designers and developers themselves. Simon said this is a benefit, not a conflict of interest.

“We need to have people on the board who are very knowledgeable,” said Simon.

The historic preservation guidelines are currently going through an overhaul. HPC will have its first discussion on that Wednesday, Sept. 7 at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall.