Additional measures would have to be taken to safely maintain the steep pitch of South Aspen Street in the winter after two hotels and a new lift corridor are developed, according to the city’s streets and engineering departments. But whether that would involve a costly and energy-sucking snowmelt system or salt-based de-icing chemicals that carry environmental risk is one of the issues that remains unresolved as the multi-faceted project moves through city council review.
Snowmelt, which would likely cost millions to install, and consume vast amounts of energy to maintain on the 500-foot length of South Aspen Street from Dean Street to the top of the hill, is being painted as a last resort by the developers of the Lift One Lodge and Gorsuch Haus. Their recommended strategy involves detailed traffic studies and monitoring, as well as consideration of using salt, after the hotels have been built on the side of the steep road that already presents difficult winter maintenance challenges. The plan also includes a new, lower mountain portal to accompany a new Lift 1A high-speed lift that will start 500 feet farther down the hill from the existing lift, and involves cooperation with the city of Aspen, which owns parkland mixed in the site, and Aspen Skiing Co.
“Within two years of completion of the projects, the applicant teams agree to revisit the question of safety, maintenance, and potential use of a snowmelt system,” says a memo from the city’s planning office to city council in advance of Monday’s meeting. “There is possible support from the applicant teams for the use of either financial guarantees or a metro district to fund a future system if it is found that a snow melt system is truly the only mechanism to respond to winter street conditions and additional traffic impacts.”
“Staff does not believe that a full understanding of a snowmelt system has been achieved, nor at this time, is there agreement that it is the best alternative to accomplish the desired outcome of safe winter streets related to the project,” the memo adds. If such a system were to happen, it would likely be connected to the city’s grid, which relies on renewable energy.
In the meantime, the city has taken up a re-evaluation of the potential of using salt-based de-icing agents on a limited basis on city streets. The city stopped using chemical de-icers — generally liquid magnesium chloride — in 2002 due to concerns for the environment and water quality, according to a 2017 memo from April Long, the city’s clean river program manager. Concerns include degrading water quality and riparian life in the stream, and that salt can corrode concrete and metals.
Since 2002, the city has used plowing and the application of sand as its only mechanisms to improve road traction and to minimize or prevent sliding on snowy/icy roads.
“This ‘sand’ presents its own environmental impacts, especially as its ground down to a finer particle that is more easily carried in snowmelt into the city’s stormwater system and discharged into the Roaring Fork River,” Long’s memo says. “In fact, total suspended solids or ‘sediment’ is the primary pollutant of concern for the city of Aspen’s stormwater program.”
Testing has shown chloride levels to be below thresholds of concern in the Roaring Fork River, so theoretically the city could introduce the chemicals in limited concentrations and still maintain healthy streams, particularly if the salt allows the city to use less sand, according to an analysis the city commissioned from Wright Water Engineers, an outside consulting firm, in 2014.
Before that would be considered, however, Long recommends the city gather detailed baseline data, including concentrations of pollutants running off of city streets into the river in winter months and existing chloride levels in the river. Then, if a limited salting program goes forward, its impacts on river health could be monitored.
Any use of salt would be based on a closely prescribed management plan, said Scott Miller, the city’s public works director. It would not be applied universally on city streets, but instead concentrated on steep hills and specific intersections of concern.
Also on tap for Monday’s meeting is more discussion about breaks the developers are requesting on the affordable housing they will be required to provide. City council has asked for more information on a “special review” the developers are asking for that would waive their requirement to provide housing associated with free market condo units that will be built with the hotels. City staff has calculated that the benefit to the Gorsuch Haus would be worth $1.4 million — the equivalent of housing six employees — and $3.2 million for the Lift One Lodge, or the equivalent of 13.6 employees.
Another topic complicating the review is a subsidy proposal that would see the city pick up a significant portion of the tab for the rehab of a historic building into a ski museum and the rebuilding of Dean Street. Both of those items were the sole responsibility of the Lift One Lodge developers under previous approvals granted in 2011, which did not include the lower alignment of the chairlift. Aspen’s city manager and at least two council members have expressed skepticism on aspects of the request, which would set aside for the ski museum build out $3.6 million in building review and impact fees the developers will pay, when such funds otherwise support general city operations.
The developers are also asking the city to pay roughly $760,000 toward an estimated $1.2 million in improvements needed on Dean Street. The Lift One Lodge was previously on the hook for what was in 2011 projected to cost $850,000. The street improvements are now more expensive because Dean Street will become an entrance to the ski area, with the new lift seating steps away.
City staff is recommending one more hearing on the projects, on Dec. 10, after Monday night’s hearing. It’s hoped that council could consider a final approval at that point, before passing the project on to voters in the March election, whose approval is needed due to zoning and parks use issues.