The Great Recession might have slowed construction activity in Aspen, but it has taken a global pandemic to stop it entirely.
Under Pitkin County’s latest health order issued Monday, all residential and commercial construction sites must be closed by April 1, while they are allowed to continue “minimum basic operations” until May 31 “for the purpose of safely securing and closure of their construction site.”
Workers also must adhere to such social-distancing suggestions such as keeping at least 6 feet away from another individual.
The order takes effect until at least April 17 and halts such projects as the new city offices on Rio Grande Place and the city’s public-private development of three employee-housing projects, as well as private sector jobs.
“I think it’s the best choice for the community and delay that work for a few weeks,” City Manager Sara Ott told Aspen City Council during its meeting Tuesday. Ott said she did not consider the city offices or the housing developments to fall under the “essential infrastructure projects” that are exempt from the order.
“From my interpretation of that public health order, I do not believe (the new city offices) should be under construction during that order,” she said.
The order also exempts “plumbers, electricians, exterminators, internet or broadband providers and other service providers who offer services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation and essential operation of residences, essential activities, and essential businesses.”
Other notable projects in Aspen that are coming to a halt include developer Mark Hunt’s boutique hotel project at the old Crystal Palace dinner theater location on the 300 block of East Hyman Avenue, as well as construction of a building that will house a Chase Bank branch at 232 E. Main St., site of the former Conoco service station.
Demolition of the gas station is set for Thursday, in order to have that element of the project completed before the health order takes effect, said Spiro Tsaparas, CEO of Chicago-firm Centaur Construction, which is Hunt’s development partner on the bank and boutique hotel projects.
“When you stop in the middle of a construction project, you really have to think hard about what you’re going to do,” Tsaparas said, saying his team has been working with city engineers since the announcement was made.
He added, “(It’s) not like there’s an expert on this right now. We’ve never dealt with something like this.”
The old Crystal Palace site currently has what Tsaparas called a “30-foot hole.”
“We are working with engineers to identify any risks that we should be looking for,” he said. “We want to be safe. We are going to continue this and we are going to finish. We have support from Mark Hunt and he has tremendous support from his financiers.”
The most recent data available from the city’s building department shows it processed 1,183 permit and land-use cases from January through September 2019 with an overall value of $241.4 million, the third time in the past decade that figure surpassed the $200 million mark. The others came in 2017 ($255.5 million) and 2016 ($297.8 million).
The construction trade also accounted for $70.3 million in taxable sales in Aspen in 2019, according to city finance records.
The constructions stoppage is part of a greater public order closing all non-essential retail businesses in Pitkin County and encouraging visitors and second-home owners to leave because of the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants and bars can only operate through takeout and delivery services; dining in is prohibited.
Steven Hansen, owner of Hansen Construction in Aspen, said the financial stakes are too high for many construction employees who will be put out of work.
“It’s difficult for all of the restaurants and retail, and now they’re making it worse,” he said. “I don’t understand why they’re taking this position.”
Hansen Construction has several residential projects in Aspen that must be suspended under the order, Hansen said. All of his company’s sites have temperature sensors to check employees for fevers and handwashing stations, among other measures to ensure a safe working environment, he said.
“It’s a horrible infection,” he said of COVID-19, “and I think we’ve been very careful.”
His company’s projects in Denver and Boulder remain ongoing because health orders there have exempt construction projects.
In Aspen, however, “we’re scaling back so we can shut (the sites) down as of March 31 for the directive of the building department, and making them safe and trying to put in as much waterproofing as we can in the short term.”
Tsaparas said he understands the county’s position.
“The reality is construction workers are carpooling from neighboring counties, spending and hour and a half in the car with the windows up and sitting together,” he said, noting the Roaring Fork Valley has yet to see the full impacts of the coronavirus.