Theater Aspen Proposes Expansion to Council and Boards

A view of a new Aspen theater facility that would be underground at Rio Grande Park.
Courtesy rendering

A pitch led by the executive director of Theater Aspen to expand the organization’s facilities and create a permanent underground venue received mixed reviews from office holders and board members on Monday.

“I think the good news is you haven’t heard a resounding ‘no,’ which means you can probably start working on that,” Aspen Mayor Torre told Jed Bernstein, executive director of the theatre.

The working session was held so that Bernstein and his group could get a feel for the direction of members of the Aspen City Council, Planning and Zoning Board, and Open Spaces and Trails Board on the replacement of the performing arts tent by a partially underground venue and the creation of other capital improvements. Bernstein and his representatives unveiled their vision for the organization’s next act in a discussion called the “sketch plan review,” which included a site visit by the parties before the discussion began.

Council and board members want to gather more information and think about the idea for another two weeks before deciding whether to allow Theater Aspen to submit a development application. The Aspen Theater needs their permission because the City of Aspen owns the land that would be developed.

The performance hall and operational facilities of the Aspen Theater are located near the John Denver Shrine, off the Rio Grande Trail.

Bernstein said the Aspen Theater explored the idea so it could expand its educational program and backstage area, operate year-round, partner with other groups on events and productions, and expand room capacity.

According to plans for the Aspen Theater presented on Monday, the new hall would have 276 seats; the current one has 199. The auditorium, stage and booths would grow from the current 4,940 square feet to 7,538 square feet. The box office and concessions area would more than double from 350 square feet to 790 square feet.

The Aspen Theater’s footprint would also grow from 19,000 square feet to 37,000 square feet, which would require changes to its lease with the city.

“We are well aware of the complexity of what we are talking about,” Bernstein said. “This is not a backyard weekend fixer. No way. Our hope and goal is to achieve mutual agreement and enthusiasm that this general idea is worth exploring.

The project would be financially supported by private funds, he said.

Land use reviews, impact studies and public hearings will all be part of the Aspen Theater’s future if it decides to go ahead with the plan. Torre said the organization should consider taking the matter to voters to get a better sense of the public’s appetite for the effort. He suggested in March holding an advisory vote, which is used to gauge public opinion and does not result in policy changes or new actions.

“I would like to see the public weigh in on this because it’s their space,” he said.

The presentation generated both enthusiasm and skepticism from members of the Council and the Board of Directors.

They said they liked the idea of ​​the project and how it fits into the nearly 40-year trajectory of Theater Aspen. Their concerns included digging 14 to 16 feet underground in an area next to the Roaring Fork River, use of public land for private purposes, sharing the facility with other arts groups, impacts on other locations, mitigation of worker housing and accessibility to location and parking.

The height above ground level of the new site would reach 17 feet 6 inches; the current one is a foot taller, said architect Charles Cunniffe. Creating an underground setting with a partially grass-covered roof would expand the space of the John Denver Shrine, according to Cunniffe.

“If we do something with the theater and put it underground and put the landscape on top of it, we actually make the John Denver Shrine the primary focus of that area rather than the theater,” he said.

The structure would be no more than 12 feet below the plaza and buried in a grass-covered mound no higher than 25 feet.

“Theater Aspen’s application addresses the complexity of green roof irrigation and maintenance. Given the proposed design, staff recommends that roof maintenance and irrigation be the responsibility of the Aspen Theater,” according to a city memo regarding the proposal. “This would reduce or eliminate the hiring of new Parks employees to support this project.

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