The campaign against the Lift One corridor project is built around the notion that the multi-faceted development comprising two hotels and a new ski lift can be improved, while maintaining a lower terminal for Lift 1A, if voters send it back to the drawing board.
Developers behind the two hotels say that if the March 5 vote goes against the proposal, the community will have missed its one and only shot at bringing a new chairlift down to Dean Street.
A review of information provided by the developers, the Aspen Skiing Co., which would build the new lift, and the city of Aspen’s planning office demonstrates that the only guarantee if the vote fails is more uncertainty. A developer of the Lift One Lodge said his team will not go back through the process to seek an approval that would allow a new chairlift to come down to Dean Street, since SkiCo has provided no guarantees it would build such a lift without the Gorsuch Haus coming to fruition.
Developers said that the now-or-never nature of the lower chairlift is due to the unique partnership that has, over the past two years, reworked the original plans of multiple entities. Paraphrasing Jim DeFrancia, a principal with the group behind the Gorsuch Haus, the plan is like a tapestry: If you start pulling on the threads, the whole thing comes undone. The benefits of the project are only made possible with the collaboration of all partners, he said.
A collaboration involving the Gorsuch Haus, the Lift One Lodge, the city of Aspen and SkiCo produced a plan unveiled last May that would see the new lift start on Dean Street, essentially in the downtown core. Previous efforts had a new lift rebuilt at the top of Aspen Street, where the 1970s-era Lift 1A currently starts. Aspen City Council in March 2017 tabled the Gorsuch Haus review, stipulating that all the parties work together to achieve the lower-lift possibility, which would return the mountain portal to its original location, where Lift 1 opened in December 1946.
That request has been honored, and now the developers of the hotels are seeking a joint approval from voters that would see 180 room keys and 320,000 square feet of buildings on the east side of South Aspen Street as it approaches the base near Shadow Mountain.
“If this doesn’t pass, the opportunity is by and large lost forever,” DeFrancia said.
Advocates of a no vote aren’t buying it. They would like to see a new city council either reduce or eliminate the size and mass of the Gorsuch Haus, which requires an upzoning to achieve its 64,000 square feet at the base of the mountain. Another sticking point is the affordable housing plan, which takes advantage of incentives in the city’s land use code created to encourage high-density lodging, to achieve a required mitigation rate of around 30 percent of employees generated, according to the city’s calculations. Most new commercial development not subject to such lodging incentives must provide housing for 65 percent of employees created.
Vote-no proponents are also upset with a $4.36 million contribution the city would be paying toward the construction of a ski museum, included in the Lift One Lodge plans in a renovated Skiers Chalet building, and a rebuilding of Dean Street.
Clock is ticking on 2011’s no-lift proposal
Michael Brown, a principal of the Lift One Lodge project, said the notion that the proposal could be recast without a Gorsuch Haus or with higher mitigation rates is fantasy. Besides a no vote taking the wind out of the developers’ sails, a deadline is looming that would prevent his team from going back to the drawing board again, he said.
SkiCo has also been clear that it wants to see both hotels built to justify the new lift.
The Lift One Lodge was first approved in 2011 with a site plan that does not allow a chairlift to pass through. Those approvals have been extended over the years and are still in place today. They ensure that the developers will be able to build something if the March 5 vote fails.
According to the city’s planning office, the current deadline to exercise those rights, which last until November 2021, cannot be extended further because of a state statute that caps the life of a land use approval at 10 years.
That gives the Lift One Lodge 32 months from the date of the election to submit a complete building permit application for the 2011 approval before it expires. Lift One Lodge team members said last week they expect they would need at least a year to get their designs in place to file for the permit. That could theoretically leave them with enough time to submit an application to rework their site along the lines of the current proposal and have that application go through the city’s review process. If approved by various advisory boards and city council, it, too, would have to go to another public vote, which is still required because of a change in use of the city’s Willoughby Park to accommodate a lift terminal and ski museum.
If things moved quickly and that vote were to fail, it is possible but not guaranteed that the Lift One Lodge could still have the year it needs after the vote to get the building permit in for the 2011 project.
But even if the above scenario is theoretically possible, it would require the assent of SkiCo, which is agreeing to build the lift now after it sells land it owns to the developers of the Gorsuch Haus. That hotel would add 81 keys to the bed base and would be built specifically with the ability to help stage future World Cup races.
“The Aspen Skiing Co. has provided no assurances that a lift will be built if this plan is not approved, but they have agreed to build one if the Lift One corridor plan is approved,” Brown wrote in an email. “Lift One Lodge will not come back again to change our existing approval to accommodate a lift that the Aspen Skiing Co. may never build. It is far too costly and risky to do this again.”
He added that it would be “incredibly frustrating” and a shame to build the 2011 approval knowing that a lower lift is possible, but that is what his team would do to preserve their investment. They purchased the site with the 2011 approvals in 2014 for $22 million.
SkiCo: Avoid a-la-carte options
If the March 5 vote on the project fails, the Gorsuch Haus application would be dead, and the developers would have to start from scratch if they want the city to consider the proposal again. The initial Gorsuch Haus application included a new chairlift starting on its site, but the developers agreed to move it down after the negotiations with Lift One Lodge, SkiCo and the city. The plan involves upzoning land that is currently zoned conservation — which allows limited development of up to four single-family homes — to a lodge designation, which provides for Gorsuch Haus’ maximum 40-foot height.
SkiCo officials, in response to written questions, said that the community should resist the temptation to view the corridor plan as an a-la-carte list of options.
“This historic neighborhood and the second portal to Aspen Mountain deserve and merit a holistic master plan,” the company wrote. “Cutting the master plan into its constituent parts compromises the individual elements and cripples the master plan.”
SkiCo officials noted that Gorsuch Haus is a true hotel with high turnover “hot beds.” The Lift One Lodge, the company noted, will be sold in fractional ownership units, which amount to “warm beds.”
“Without the hot beds, the space and the vitality at the base, the skier usage on that side of the mountain would probably not warrant the substantially increased lift capacity we are agreeing to,” SkiCo’s email says. “The mix is right. … What really makes this work is the collaboration between all partners, public and private.”
If the community, through the ballot box, says it feels that two hotels would be too much vitality, would the singular development of the Lift One Lodge be enough for SkiCo to still consider bringing the lift down the hill?
“While we would never say never, probably not,” company officials wrote. “We cannot know what would happen to any of the individual pieces should this not be approved. That would change the formula and the balance of needs and uses incorporated in the master plan. … It is unlikely that we would move the lift if only one or two elements of the master plan were selectively approved.”
The current Lift 1A could run for as long as another 20 years, according to SkiCo. If the Lift One corridor vote fails, the most likely scenario is more delay.
“A lot of work went in to getting to this point by everyone involved, not the least of which was by the city of Aspen staff and elected officials,” company officials wrote. “When we have new people on council, new city staff, the potential for a different plan for the entire corridor, it is impossible to speculate on what is most likely to happen. Without question, a ‘no’ vote would push any plan for the area substantially farther into the future.”
The company officials added that building four single-family homes on the Gorsuch Haus land, as some have suggested might happen if the corridor plan is voted down, is “economically viable” but “not the preferred alternative we would like to see at the base of the mountain, as it does not serve to improve the ski experience, revitalize the neighborhood or recapture lost bed base.”