Aspen City Council and members of the public offered high praise Tuesday for efforts to get two hotel developers, the Aspen Skiing Co. and the city’s planning office on the same page regarding the lower placement of a new Lift 1 chairlift.
But in the midst of the kumbaya moment and acknowledgement of how far the process has come since a ski area design consultant began working with the divergent parties a year ago, officials also expressed caution about how much remains to be done. Potential pitfalls are many, including disputes about how to handle the remains of the historic Lift 1 chairlift built in 1947, size and mass variances hotel developers will likely ask for to make the scheme work and how the questions should be presented in an inevitable public vote.
“I made a quip [one year ago] that nothing is going to happen until [all parties] come back here holding hands,” Councilman Adam Frisch said in a well-attended work session Tuesday evening. While that appears to be happening now, he said later, “I want this to be the start of the positive momentum, not the peak.”
The city’s planning office, in cooperation with SE Group, which consults on ski area design, on Friday released a report recommending a new Lift 1 with a bottom terminal a few steps up from Dean Street in a city park. The report was the product of a year of work involving the SkiCo, the developers of the Gorsuch Haus that is planned for the top of the South Aspen Street hill, and the Lift One Lodge, which council approved in 2011 for the lot directly below Gorsuch Haus.
In the last decade of negotiations on the redevelopment of the Lift 1 portal to Aspen Mountain, conversations of moving the lift farther down the hill have centered around the difficulties impeding that from happening.
As recently as the spring of 2017, the Lift One Lodge and Gorsuch Haus developers were at loggerheads over lift placement, with Gorsuch holding firm to a plan to rebuild the lift in its existing location, on land it is under contract to purchase from SkiCo.
According to Jessica Garrow, the planning office director, getting from that difficult place to the goodwill shared by all on Tuesday was the result of “good old fashioned slogging it out over lots of time and lots of frank discussions.”
Chris Cushing, principal of SE Group, also credited a methodical process that began with 10 different options for lift placement. The parties established a set of over one-dozen criteria by which each option was evaluated and whittled the list down to four finalists. Those remaining options were then studied in greater detail.
To get consensus from the major stakeholders, everyone had to give something. It wasn’t always easy, Cushing said, and emotions occasionally ran high, especially in the early meetings. But by the last meeting, the vibe was different, he said. Everyone had come to trust one another where in the past that was lacking.
Cushing credited Aaron and Michael Brown, owners of the Lift One Lodge property, for being willing to redesign their approved project to create a wider clearance between two planned buildings that straddle a ski corridor. The corridor is now the planned site for the new chairlift alignment, which will require a variance for its proximity to the buildings from the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board.
David Corbin, vice president of planning for SkiCo, said that original Lift One Lodge plans only allowed 45 feet between the buildings. SkiCo would not sign off on such a narrow passage, he said, shuddering to think of under-skilled skiers potentially running into a building.
“We said at a minimum show us 60 feet and we can live with that,” Corbin said.
The Browns have yet to indicate what specific changes they will seek to their approved plans to accommodate the wider passage. City planning staff wrote in Friday’s announcement that “potential massing and programming changes” are likely, and those changes may trigger an election under Referendum 1, the 2015 charter amendment that requires a public vote on variances related to height, mass, parking or affordable housing. The public will know for certain when Lift One Lodge submits an amendment application, likely by early June.
“Throughout the project, staff did a tremendous job brining everyone together,” Michael Brown said at Tuesday’s meeting, also thanking Gorsuch Haus, SkiCo and SE Group for their efforts. “We are trying to do something special here and I think everyone worked toward that goal.”
For Gorsuch Haus, giving up the bottom terminal on its land means that the lift alignment will run considerably closer to the east side of its building, potentially requiring the whole project to shift to the west.
Jim DeFrancia, part of the Gorsuch Haus ownership group, said in Tuesday’s meeting that his team is willing to make those changes. He gave credit to the Browns for their commitment to the process and noted that “we have one chance to get this right.”
“This can truly be a legacy project for the city,” he said, with positive impacts to lift access, skier services, lodging, historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization. He credited city staff with driving the parties to the point of consensus.
The cooperation and generosity of the Dolinsek family is also critical to the plan. The city in 2015 acquired their property which borders the site on the promise to turn it into a public park. Josephine Dolinsek, now 97, has a life estate allowing her to live out her days in the home on the property before the park can be developed. Although the easement on the property prohibits chairlifts, overhead cables or ski-area infrastructure, the land can be used for skiing.
Corbin, of the SkiCo, said that a crucial factor in his agreement on the plan came when the Dolinseks agreed to allow manmade snow to be stored at times on the property, while granting SkiCo snowcats the right to move the snow from there onto the adjacent slopes. Without that, making enough snow to cover the surface and maintaining it throughout the winter season would not be possible, Corbin said.
Public comment at Tuesday’s work session was generally positive, thanking the parties for coming together on a matter of public interest, though one man shared his proposal for a different neighborhood plan that would include a feeder chairlift. The plan also would have Gorsuch Haus engage the city in a land trade and move its project down the hill.
Mike Maple, a long-time advocate for improving the chairlift and revitalizing both the neighborhood and the historic chairlift, said it’s “unbelievable there is consensus” and that he’s excited that after so long, a plan is appearing to gel.
He cautioned, however, that city council needs to get its head around what kind of variances the lodges will be asking for and whether or not its members will support those variances. If they cannot support those eventual variances, then this could be “all for naught,” he said. He also said any question presented to the public should be as clear and concise as possible.
City Attorney Jim True said the plans could result in as many as three different ballot questions: one for changing the use of a city park to allow commercial skiing infrastructure, another because of hotel development variances and potentially a third related to the rezoning of the Gorsuch Haus property. True added he is researching whether the questions could be combined into one.
Frisch said that his preference would be as few ballot questions as possible, acknowledging that a vote will have to happen.
Frisch also said that if November is too tight of a timeline to vet all the aspects of the plan in time for an election, he would be willing to hold a special election in January.
There are a lot of moving parts and trying to do too much too soon could be a mistake, he said.
Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron said Tuesday’s events represented a “beautiful community conversation” but there would be more difficult discussions ahead about development and community. He encouraged his constituents and the council to put emotion aside and think about how the project will impact the town’s future.