This summer, the City of Aspen will release a Request for Proposals searching for interested restaurant operators who can provide affordable food at the former Taster’s Pizza space in Rio Grande Park.
Aspen City Council members agreed during their working session Monday to prioritize filling city-owned space, which has been vacant since 2019 when the building underwent renovation for municipal offices.
Board members told City Capital Asset Manager Rob Schober, who will draft the RFP, that they wanted to include criteria such as “family friendly” and to make clear that it would not be a gourmet or upscale restaurant.
Mayor Torre noted that the space is across from the Rio Grande park and skate park, which attracts youngsters and teens, and the futuristic restaurant should cater to those residents as well.
“If you place an RFP, you will receive a variety of responses, and from there we will be able to talk more about the path forward,” he told Chopper.
The council also agreed that the lease term would be at least five years with a five-year renewal option so that it would be worth the operator’s investment to make tenant improvements to the space.
While the restaurant space is not ready to move in, the city has invested in upgrading the electrical and ventilation system in anticipation of a new tenant.
However, the placement of additional features or amenities and the construction of restrooms in the space must be done jointly with the future tenant as part of the contract process.
Chopper said the place has been cleaned up, and some restaurant equipment is still there.
Councilwoman Rachel Richards asked if the city could allocate some money for tenant improvements to expedite the opening of an operator and then have the company pay the municipal government over several years of the lease.
“I’m just wondering about having a family-friendly, low-priced, teen-oriented menu that’s going to require a huge investment, and if that doesn’t work out for someone’s initial look, do we need to be a partner?” she said.
Schoper said the question of whether government assistance is necessary will be included in the RFP.
“That’s one of the questions we’re going to ask in the RFP,” he said, “Do you need public funds to get this work done and a pencil?” “
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said that if the city was willing to pay the money to build the former Taster’s Pizza location, he’d like to see the same in a space that was once under the now defunct Cooper Street Pier on Cooper Street.
The city failed to get an affordable basement restaurant at 508 E. Cooper Ave. (near the corner of Paradise Bakery), despite trying for a decade.
That’s because the board that negotiated with the building’s owners in 2008 did not anticipate the estimated $1 million needed to finish the space, which deterred potential tenants from turning it into a restaurant.
The maximum monthly rent for basement space is $50 per square foot with standard annual increments, and there are price restrictions on any future listings, according to a settlement agreement between the city and building owners.
The developers sued the city in 2007 after the council rejected their request to divide the property into separate condominium interests.
The two sides have reached a settlement, permitting redevelopment on the condition that deed constraints keep the cost of the basement down.
City officials said they understand that the agreement — negotiated by then-Council members J.E. Devilbis, Jackie Kasabash, Jack Johnson, Dwayne Romero and Steve Scadron — was bad for the city. Developers acquired a penthouse that sold for $13.2 million in 2015, and the community got an empty basement.
Scott Miller, the city’s director of public works, told the council Monday that it is difficult to legislate exact list prices, but that a scope could be included in the RFP for the Rio Grande acreage.
“This helps people decide if they want to respond to the RFP,” he said.
The city serves as a business owner for the three restaurants it owns, the Wheeler Opera House, the local golf course, and the Rio Grande Building.
The terms of leases for restaurant operators in city spaces have certain expectations written on them, such as hours of operation, and in return, they do not pay market rents.
Taster’s was an affordable option for the public due to the reduced rent the city offered. The pizzeria has been operating on a monthly lease with the city since 2012 and has paid a fraction of the rent — $1,350 per month plus a triple network — that orders the downtown commercial space. Taster’s has been in the Rio Grande building since 2008.
The city’s process of finding restaurants can be arduous, long, and political.
It took several months to select Judge Snow’s first in 2011 when Bentley closed in Wheeler and about the time the current tenant, Public House, was chosen.
The city has tried in the past to limit menu prices at some of its locations, but it has proven very difficult to control.
Further negotiations with building owners Andy Hecht and his son Nikos, who were also part of the Cooper Avenue deal, saw better success keeping prices on the menu at what is now Clark’s Oyster Bar.
A property limitation was placed in 2015 as a result of a deal struck between City Council and Hechts.
The Hechts announced in 2011 that they plan to demolish the Hyman Avenue building where Little Annie’s used to be. There was panic throughout the community—and at the council table—that one of Aspen’s oldest bars and restaurants could be gone forever.
The city council gave the Hechts millions of dollars worth of rest breaks on the adjacent mixed-use building in exchange for their demand to price the restaurant in perpetuity.
The verb restriction reads in part: “A low-priced restaurant means a restaurant that serves menu items at prices that are, on a relative basis, compared to other sit-down restaurants in Aspen, Colorado, from current menu prices. Current menu prices are those on the menu prices in effect at Little Restaurant.” Annie’s on September 23, 2015.
“It is presumed that a restaurant does not operate as a low-price restaurant unless the regular dinner menu offered to customers on a daily basis contains four entree items of reasonable choice and proportion, including at least one poultry dish and one fish or hamburger dish, the average price of which does not exceed For four items it’s $19, and the regular lunch menu served to customers daily contains four main items of choice and reasonable proportions, including a hamburger, which for the four items averages no more than $14.”
Upscale seafood restaurant Clark’s Oyster Bar has sandwiches on the lunch menu at $15 and $18, as well as a 3-5 p.m. happy hour Monday through Friday that serves burgers and martinis at half price, along with $0.50. of oysters and $5 from oyster shooters.
The dinner menu has salads from $14 to $15 and à la carte items from $9 to $16, but everything else goes well beyond what the restricted menu requires.
Back at the board table on Monday, elected officials seemed eager to move forward with the former Taster space, which was a different view earlier this year when it wasn’t on the priority list for capital projects.
“I’m glad to hear that this is on the right track,” Richards said.
Councilman John Doyle echoed her comments.
“I’m really happy to hear this,” he said, “because so many people have already approached me wondering about this space.” “And that’s exactly what they wanted, is to get some input on how the restaurant is set up, so thank you for hitting them hard.”
Schober said the task force is proposing the current “white box” space for potential restaurant operators during the RFP process, which allows the future operator to visualize what the venue might look like.
“I would like by the end of the summer to have an idea of where we are going,” he said, adding that he would like to be before the board next month to approve the RFP. “I know it will take resources and a significant amount of time, and that is what we are willing to do.
“That’s why I’m here, and I’m telling you, that’s what we’re going to prioritize, and I’m going to make sure that happens.”