The historic Red Onion in downtown Aspen is set to open by Thanksgiving, according to Mark Hunt, the building’s owner.
“It will be a bar,” he said this week, adding it will not be a bougie one. “It will be a better version of itself.”
The Onion, as longtime locals refer to it, serves a symbol of Aspen’s history and vitality, and it has been shuttered since December of 2020 when the operators of the bar and restaurant permanently closed in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions.
Hunt had planned to renovate the space and have it open by the fall of last year, but complications with his development next door, formerly known as the Bidwell building, slowed the process down.
It was realized after the city’s approvals for development that the Red Onion kitchen was encroaching on the Bidwell property and needed to be relocated.
Hunt sought and received approval in February 2021 to demolish the Red Onion kitchen and move it to the west onto the property in which it serves, 420 E. Cooper Ave.
A change order application and a subsequent notice of approval to do that work was based on a set of conditions and timelines in an effort by the city to keep the project alive and the Red Onion delivered back to the community.
“No later than four months after the issuance of the building permit for the kitchen relocation, the applicant shall complete the relocation of the Red Onion kitchen, as evidenced by receipt of a letter of completion,” reads the notice of approval. “Failure to meet the timelines approved in this notice of approval will result in the city withholding the issuance of building permits or certificates of occupancy for 434 E. Cooper Ave. until the letter of completion is issued for the Red Onion renovation.”
There have been delays in the rebuilding of 434 E. Cooper Ave. as well, since the prospective tenant and part property owner, RH, formerly known as Restoration Hardware, has made significant changes to the plan.
Regardless, Hunt did not move on the Red Onion at the pace city officials had hoped.
“We were putting pressure on them to open the Red Onion and it didn’t come together,” said Amy Simon, the city’s director of planning. “They didn’t uphold their end of the deal.”
Hunt said when his tenants decided to close the Red Onion, he saw an opportunity to do a full remodel of the restaurant, as well as the two buildings on either side at the same time.
Those buildings are slated to become a music performance center owned and operated by Jazz Aspen Snowmass.
The JAS Center was originally scheduled to be open in June of 2021 but with construction delays and the pandemic, those plans are delayed by three years.
“We looked at the buildings and saw an opportunity,” Hunt said. “(The Red Onion building) was not in good shape and we needed to straighten up lot line issues, move the kitchen and do it right.
“The city became aware that these were connected properties and how complicated it all is.”
Required stormwater retention improvements under the properties, mechanical systems on the roof and egress between buildings are some examples of the complexities the developer and the city have been going back and forth on.
Delivering a performance center and a remodeled Red Onion to the community at once, and trying to do construction holistically was a tradeoff Hunt was willing to make.
“We could’ve picked one over the other but there are a lot of moving pieces,” he said. “It is what it is.”
Eventually, Hunt chose to renovate the Red Onion separately from the larger project that includes the JAS Center.
“The city has supported this shift in plans to the extent that re-opening of that long-standing business is a high priority and we hope to see the business open while the JAS project proceeds around it,” Simon said.
That is precisely the plan Hunt and JAS President and CEO Jim Horowitz are operating on.
Hunt said he plans to remodel the buildings surrounding the Red Onion and deliver the unfinished interior space to JAS in the spring of 2023. A building permit application will be filed with the city in the coming days, he added.
JAS is under contract to purchase the existing second floor of the Red Onion, plus the adjacent spaces and the street level entrance to create the JAS Center.
The 9,000-square-foot space will include a full bar, an elevated stage for performances, a recording, mixing and finishing studio, a terrace overlooking the Cooper Avenue Mall with views of the patron lounge, a photo gallery showcasing the JAS archive from the nonprofit’s past 32 years and more.
Ultimately, it will be a multi-use, multi-purpose space with four functions: A club for listening to live music, a classroom, an event space and a recording studio, Horowitz said.
“It’s a pretty exciting use for the downtown core,” he said. “This is a chance for the town to help ensure this cool building keeps its soul and turns into a gathering place.”
He said his development team has been working with Hunt’s team and plans for buildout are taking shape.
“We have a real sense of momentum about the project,” Horowitz said. “In a perfect world, we will be open by summer of 2024.”
Meanwhile, JAS has been working on what is called a “pace setting” capital campaign, focusing on the organization’s fundraising leaders.
“We have $11 million in pledges,” Horowitz said. “This is unprecedented for us.”
Renovation of the Red Onion includes putting two bathrooms on the first level, and adding booths, new light fixtures and a fireplace.
The construction is scheduled to begin in May and end in September, according to general contractor G.F. Woods Construction as part of the building permit application submitted to the city.
Hunt declined to identify who the new operator will be, but it won’t be former owners Brad Smith and Michael Tierney.
Hunt said he is keenly aware that some people in the community are frustrated their beloved watering hole has been shuttered for so long.
“We missed a season or two of drinking but it will be worth it,” he said. “We are super excited about it and I think the town will be happy with it.”
If the Red Onion opens on Hunt’s timeline, it will be quicker than the turnaround from the previous building owners, Ron Garfield and Andy Hecht, who kept it closed for nearly three years.
The space shuttered in 2007 after a blowout closing party in March of that year, following a couple of years of remodeling and an eventual opening in May of 2010.
By: Carolyn Sackariason I The Aspen Times I January 27, 2022