The Lift One corridor proposal vote is one of the most consequential in Aspen history. Predictably, the waters have been muddied. Concerns with the project are numerous and plenty have merit. It is fair to think that the developers could do more for affordable housing. The thought of situating a new hotel in the runout of Norway — a gem of a ski run — is not anyone’s first choice. Whether or not the developers outfoxed city council in getting the $4.36 million contribution toward a ski museum and street improvements can and should be debated for years to come.
But we must not lose sight of the the most important question in play with this vote: Do we want an enhanced mountain portal and public space in the downtown core or not?
Our answer is an emphatic yes. Creating the space envisioned on the lower portion of the Lift One corridor is exactly the kind of vision the town should rally around. A new chairlift reaching the downtown core based in a public park containing restored historic structures, including the original Lift One and Skiers Chalet, will honor the importance of and enhance the connection between the city and ski mountain above. That connection is what makes Aspen the crown jewel of North American ski towns. Creating a second mountain portal anchoring the other end of Dean Street will bolster our competitive advantage and improve the public infrastructure serving all our residents and visitors.
The fact that we are debating whether to accept this proposal or not represents a massive, and underappreciated, victory for this city council. Less than two years ago, the city was faced with a decision on a standalone Gorsuch Haus proposal that in partnership with Aspen Skiing Co. would have built a new lift in its existing location, but walled off behind new edifices of the Gorsuch Haus and the already approved Lift One Lodge. The council refused to consider the standalone Gorsuch proposal until all the parties — the two hotels, the SkiCo and the city, which controls over two and a half acres of parks in the neighborhood — got together and tried to bring the lift down the hill. Last May, the partners announced this would be possible. The plan presented is a vast improvement over what we were dealing with before.
Sacrificing this grand vision because of qualms with one aspect of the project or another strikes us as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
We hear the concerns related to increasing zoning allowances as required by the Gorsuch Haus. However, we understand that the plan as it exists today requires the participation of both hotel developers, each of which is sharing the burden of millions of dollars in costs to support the infrastructure this corridor master plan requires. Removing one element will at best force a reevaluation that will take years to work through toward an uncertain outcome. At worst, the Lift One Lodge would go forward with its 2011 approval, which does not provide enough room for a chairlift to run through the site, forever sealing off the ideal mountain portal. If this loses, we doubt we will have heard the last of a development proposal for the Gorsuch Haus land and believe that in the absence of a hotel, SkiCo — which owns the land but is under contract to sell it to Gorsuch Haus — would eventually seek to develop luxury residential real estate on the site, which it could do by right under the existing “conservation” zoning. Even if you would prefer a smaller Gorsuch Haus, we believe hotel rooms would better serve our community in that location than more vacant second homes.
If we could rewrite the proposal, the first thing we would change is see that it led to the creation of more affordable housing. Currently, the two hotels, which per the city’s calculations will lead to the creation of up to 238 new full-time employees, will be responsible for housing 67 of those people. That is around 30 percent, whereas most new commercial development has to mitigate for 65 percent of new employees generated. While it is tempting to come down on the developers for not doing more, it is critical to recognize that the amount of housing they are providing is allowed by the city’s land use code. That code has long contained incentives for new hotel rooms with an average size of around 500 square feet, a mark that the developments meet. Whether or not that incentive should be eliminated for large new hotels is a legitimate concern — which we suggest should be taken up by the new council — but to hold up the negotiated solution for the new mountain portal because the developers met the code on housing strikes us as flawed reasoning. In addition, the projects will be audited a few years after they come online, and if the free market condo units in both lodges create more employees than the developers are now saying, they will have to add to their housing mitigation.
We must also address the city’s $4.36 million contribution that will fund portions of the corridor — specifically, $3.6 million toward the effort to relocate by about two blocks and renovate the Skiers Chalet, which will become a ski museum and a ticket office, and $750,000 toward the $1.2 million project to rebuild Dean Street in front of the new portal. These are public-serving aspects of the project. The Lift One Lodge in the past was solely responsible for these elements, but when the scope of the project changed with the enhanced, lower mountain portal, the needs changed, and while we would rather there was not a taxpayer subsidy here, we believe it is going toward a worthy cause. That money also is only deliverable to the developers after the new lift is in place, providing an incentive to get the project done.
This newspaper has watched multiple proposals come and go for this land over the last 15 years. This is by far the best one. It offers the best chance to bring back World Cup ski racing. A no-vote would be a nail in the coffin toward that unassailable good and we have not heard a solid plan from anyone in the vote-no camp on how to prevent the worst-case scenario if this goes down. A yes vote is in favor of enhanced public space, a better mountain portal and a solution to what has been one of the community’s most pressing issues.
The Aspen Daily News endorsements were crafted by the editorial board, which includes publisher David Cook, editor Curtis Wackerle, contributing editor Madeleine Osberger and co-owner Spencer McKnight.