Aspenites have repeatedly made two points about the historic downtown Armory building very clear. They love the Armory — and they would love to eat inexpensive food while hanging out and socializing there.
That’s what residents told the city in numerous surveys and at an October Armory open house that drew about 200 enthusiastic attendees of all ages. Attendees voted for how they wanted the building used as they dined on delicious free food.
At Monday’s work session, Aspen City Council reviewed pie charts that showed most respondents favored a food hall with multiple vendors plus a bar or coffee shop where locals could hangout and enjoy a casual, inexpensive meal or snack. It sounds a bit like a more intimate, smaller scaled version of Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, a place where all walks of life — firefighters, students, families, teachers and more — relax and chat.
Council member Bill Guth was supportive of the concept but pointed to what he sees as a key obstacle in creating a food hall.
“We (the city council) have zero experience,” he said.
Guth explained that no one on the council would know where a freight elevator should be added or what kind of refrigeration units need to be installed. Guth wasn’t opposed to a food hall. But he said the city needed a partner with restaurant industry expertise and the ability to figure out the costs of the necessary structural changes and equipment.
Aspen Development Manager Jen Phelan and Mayor Torre thought that the RFP issued by the city for work on the Armory may bring in someone with that skill set. They suggested waiting to see who responded.
Other ideas for the Armory suggested by Aspenites were offering workspace to nonprofits or community meeting rooms and inexpensive retail. The food hall concept would not block those other uses. Phelan asked the council to prioritize the community’s needs so the design would reflect what Aspen wanted most.
Torre and all the council members agreed casual, inexpensive food was the top priority for locals. And they also saw a food hall as a place where folks could talk about work or use their laptops. They also thought inexpensive retail, particularly sold by local artisans, would complement such a hall. Council member Sam Rose suggested entertainment spaces could be incorporated into the Armory, rooms or enclaves with pool tables or games.
Guth said that two of the suggested uses, a 1,000 square foot visitors’ center and rentable office spaces, did not fit the vision of the Armory putting locals first. He thought that a visitors’ kiosk in a food hall could be appropriate but observed that there were already plentiful work-sharing spaces for rent in Aspen. And he added that a food hall has a more easygoing atmosphere than an upscale restaurant. A food hall can become a co-working space if colleagues could feel comfortable putting their laptops on the table next to their lunches for awhile.
In closing, Torre said there were locals who had hoped that the Armory could include some workforce or affordable housing. While the Armory may not be the right venue for that use, Torre said he wanted those voices to know that they were heard.
Lynda Edwards | The Aspen Times | November 14, 2023