Two hotel developers, the Aspen Skiing Co. and city of Aspen have reached conceptual agreement on a plan to bring a new Lift 1 down to Dean Street, while preserving a portion of the original chairlift structure that serves as one of the community’s most important historic sites.
The plan represents a significant shift in the prospects for skier access in the South Aspen Street neighborhood, where since 1972 the bottom of the chairlift has been located three blocks uphill from the original Dean Street point of entry. The city of Aspen has been vetting various development proposals for the area for over a decade, all of which contemplated a new lift with a lower terminal near the existing placement.
For the scheme, detailed in a study released on Friday, to become a reality, both the Gorsuch Haus hotel project proposed for the top of South Aspen Street and the already-approved Lift One Lodge timeshare development just downhill from there would have to amend existing plans. City voters will also likely have to sign off because of changes to the Lift One Lodge, as well as changes to city parks in the area, that, by their nature, would automatically trigger an election under the municipal charter.
Aspen City Council will review the study results in a 4 p.m. work session on Tuesday. The public is invited to an open house at noon on Tuesday, where representatives from all the stakeholder groups and the Aspen Historical Society will be on hand to answer questions.
As the Gorsuch Haus, the final development proposal to come through the pipeline for the neighborhood, was debated over the past two years, it became increasingly clear that the 80-key lodge providing myriad skier-service improvements may not pass political muster without bringing the lift farther down the hill. That desire was driven by portions of the community that have rallied around the idea of returning skier access to the original placement of Lift 1. The lift revolutionized Aspen when it opened in 1947, providing access from the downtown core to the top of Aspen Mountain — the longest chairlift in the world at the time.
Aspen City Council last year tabled the Gorsuch Haus application and brought in a consultant to examine the feasibility of alternate lift placements, with an eye toward bringing the new span downhill. The consultant, SE Group, came back last fall after studying nine options. It determined that two of the options made the most sense — one ending the lift at Gilbert Street, which is roughly halfway between the existing bottom terminal and Dean Street, and the other taking the lift all the way to a city park adjacent to Dean Street. The latter option is only feasible if return skiing is moved onto a portion of the Dolinsek Parcel, which the city acquired in 2015 on the promise that the land eventually become a public park — however, chairlift infrastructure is prohibited on the land, per the agreement under which the city accepted the land.
The study pointedly did not examine Gorsuch Haus’s original proposal of starting the lift on its property, with a rubber-tire shuttle making a loop from Rubey Park and dropping skiers off at the top of the hill.
Throughout the process, some, including SkiCo officials, have expressed skepticism over the viability of such a plan, for reasons including a degraded return-skiing experience, as the ski trail would cut a narrow corridor between two Lift One Lodge buildings; issues keeping the bottom of the run covered with adequate snowmaking and grooming; and whether the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board would grant a variance allowing for a lift in the gap in between the buildings.
SE Group spent the winter and spring working with the two developers, the city and SkiCo, diving deeper into the two options from the first round, as well as two more options studied at the request of Aspen City Council. Those additional options were to bring the lift down to Dean with a second loading area at Gorsuch Haus, as well as an alignment to Dean Street that would result in the removal of the original Lift One infrastructure — a bullwheel and three towers — that sit in the city’s Willoughby and Lift One parks.
City officials are standing firm on the principle that a new lift solution should not result in the removal of the historic Lift 1 structures.
“Any action to move, alter or demolish any component of this should be given the same weight as such a dramatic action affecting a Victorian icon like the Wheeler [Opera House] would generate,” says the staff memo on the study’s findings. It was written by deputy planning director Jennifer Phelan, historic preservation planner Amy Simon and planning director Jessica Garrow.
The second loading-station concept is challenged because the upper-loading terminal near the Gorsuch Haus would require large retaining walls and challenging skier-circulation patterns; return skiing to Dean would likely not be possible under such a scenario.
The lift-to-Gilbert option also has two potentially fatal flaws: It would require the elimination of one Lift One Lodge building and it would not provide good pedestrian or skier access from Dean Street.
A lift extension to Dean Street, with a loading zone located uphill of the historic bullwheel structure, known as scenario 7, “would be a superior solution … as some of the historic resource can be maintained, and the distance from Dean Street to a newly located lift is reasonable,” the staff memo says. “Additionally, it has superior skier circulation and mazing when compared with [other scenarios]. All the stakeholders have agreed [with scenario 7] and recommend moving forward with this option.”
The memo lists the advantages of scenario 7 as lift and skier return to Dean Street, good pedestrian access, good skier circulation and mazing, and limited grooming constraints. It also allows for any lift type and retains the historic bullwheel.
Disadvantages include constraints on snowmaking, a longer skier runout, the need for a variance from the state tramway board and the displacement and potential destruction of three historic Lift 1 towers.
To accommodate the ski run and chairlift alignment running between its two buildings, Lift One Lodge plans will have to undergo changes, including “changing the placement of the lodge,” the memo says, without going into specific detail. “This will include siting changes as well as potential massing and programming changes to the existing approvals.”
Those changes would likely open up Lift One Lodge to a required public vote under 2015’s Referendum 1, which changed the city charter to require an election on any variances granted by council related to height and mass.
The Lift One Lodge plan also includes relocating the historic Skiers Chalet building down to Willoughby Park and converting it into a ski museum. How that looks in the final plan is still unclear. Other changes to Willoughby and Lift One parks are possible that may require a public vote.
The Gorsuch Haus site plan is also likely to need changing to accommodate the new plan, according to the memo.
The city is proposing an aggressive timeline to review changes to both the hotel developments and city parks in time to get a question before voters in the November election. The memo proposes that beginning June 19, the Planning and Zoning Commission will begin looking at Lift One Lodge changes. On June 20, the Historic Preservation Commission will look at changes to the parks and the Skiers Chalet building. Aspen City Council could begin looking at the various changes by June 25, with as many as three public hearings taking place July 9, July 23 and Aug. 13, by which point the city aims to have ballot language drafted.
The election would take place Nov. 6, when other matters, including Colorado’s next governor and control of Congress, will also be on the ballot.
Aspen City Council on Tuesday will be asked to bless the plan going forward and to support the aggressive timeline. Council will also be asked for additional funds to pursue a variance application before the tramway board.