Aspen voters by the thinnest of margins — 26 votes — supported the Lift One corridor project in Tuesday’s election, backing a large lodging development that brings with it new ski facilities and access to the west side of Aspen Mountain.
Nearly 3,100 voters cast ballots, decimating the previous record turnout in a municipal election of 2,544 in 2009. That was the intended result of voters amending the city charter last November, moving the municipal election from May to March on the theory that holding the vote when more people are in town would result in higher participation.
The issue was on the ballot because the proposal involved a change of zoning and a reworking of the boundary lines and uses of city parks — issues that trigger public votes in most circumstances.
The vote divided the community, with proponents seeing the plan as a best-case-scenario compromise with concerns about over-development tempered by excitement about a new, more accessible mountain portal. Opponents felt that the plan should be sent back to the council table to have objectionable elements reworked. The committee in favor of passing the proposal, funded by developers, spent more than $283,000 on their campaign, nearly 19 times what the vote-no committee spent.
“I don’t think it is anything but a reflection of how deeply people care for this community,” Jeff Gorsuch, a principal of the Gorsuch Haus project, said after the results came in, reflecting on the closeness of the election. “Tomorrow we dive in” and get to work bringing the plan to life, he added.
The plan is anchored by two hotels — the Lift One Lodge at the bottom of the hill and Gorsuch Haus at the top, on the site of the existing Lift 1A chairlift. Between them, the hotels would contain over 320,000 square feet of new development and 185 rooms, plus at least three restaurants and two underground parking garages.
Proponents focused on the plan’s creation of a new Lift 1A that would begin in Willoughby Park, steps from Dean Street and 500 feet closer to the downtown core than the existing lift. The siting of the lift in that location came after years of back and forth between the two hotel developers, the city and the Aspen Skiing Co.
Initially, a new lift was planned for the Gorsuch Haus site, but council sent that project back to the drawing board in March of 2017, instructing all the parties to work together on a solution to bring the lift down the hill. The parties came forward in May with the site plan voters accepted on Tuesday.
Moving the lift down the hill required the developers of the Lift One Lodge to amend their site plan, widening the corridor between their two planned buildings.
The downhill move was also made possible by the city of Aspen’s acquisition of the Dolinsek parcel, which abuts the lower east side of the corridor. That land, which has been the home of the Dolinsek family since Aspen’s pre-skiing “quiet years” is critical to the corridor’s function, as return skiing and lift mazing, as well as snowmaking and maintenance operations, would not be possible without the property.
The land will be converted into a city park, envisioned as the Dolinsek Gardens, after the last remaining Dolinsek family member lives out her days in the single family home that is on the lot. Josephine Dolinsek is in her late 90s.
Opposition centered on the developers’ proposal to provide affordable housing for around 30 percent of new employees created, per city planning office calculations, where most new development must mitigate for 65 percent of new employees. The hotels were able to do this by taking advantage of incentives established by the city to encourage new lodging projects with rooms of an average size of around 500 square feet. The reduced affordable housing requirement would have required the developers to provide housing for some 67 employees in to-be-determined locations.
Opponents also zeroed in on a $4.36 million taxpayer subsidy that was part of the proposal, which city council agreed to grant after numerous contentious hearings. The funds would support the relocation of the Skiers Chalet building from its current spot down the hill to Dean Street and its rehabilitation into a new ski museum, as well as improvements to Dean Street.
The other major fault of the proposal, according to proponents, was the size and placement of the Gorsuch Haus, at the top of the hill on land that is currently zoned “conservation,” which allows only limited development. The proposal will upzone the land to the lodging designation. The building will also have be built in the runout of the expert ski run Norway, which upset many Aspen Mountain devotees, who will have to cut their run short to traverse around the lodge, or follow the fall line to its end and click out of their skis to make it back to the lift.