For the better part of the last two decades, redevelopment of the Lift One side of Aspen Mountain has been one of those apparently insurmountable “Aspen” issues. Recounting the history of Aspen’s original ski lift and its halting progress toward something other than an antiquated afterthought of a low-speed double chair known as Lift 1A has been the fodder of local news and politics for many years.
Like a Gordian knot (the kind from Alexander the Great’s time, where the harder you pull on its ends the tighter it gets), Lift One redevelopment has been thrashed around over the years. Legend has it that when confronted with the original Gordian knot, Alexander sliced it in two with one blow of his sword, consequently gaining dominion over all of Asia.
Such a swift and declaratory solution to Aspen’s Lift One version of the Gordian knot has never emerged. As with many complex issues, Lift One redevelopment proposals have seemed always to eventually collapse under the weight of a multiplicity of community interests, political allegiances and economic limitations. It is as if each of these interests pulls on the knot in the direction of their perceived benefit, tightening its hold on the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to progress.
This newspaper’s online edition is replete with a virtual library of stories, columns (including some of mine) and letters to the editor regarding the current and prior proposals for the redevelopment of the Lift One corridor of Aspen Mountain. Taken collectively, it’s a multi-decade diary of Lift One drama and an opportunity in need of a radical solution. Lift One needed something that would refocus the community on a shared vision that would supersede the perceived individualized interests of the stakeholders.
At one level it’s a mystery to me as to why it’s so hard to plan and develop ski- and snowboard-serving facilities and infrastructure in a community founded on skiing. After all, Aspen still gains the largest portion of its substantial international identity from its skiing legacy. And now, its future as an international ski racing venue is at stake with the FIS’s declaration that a new lift is required if Aspen is to host future international competitions.
Yes, summer activities — music, physics, ideas and the like — all contribute to modern Aspen’s gestalt (a German word meaning the whole provides more value than the sum of its individual parts), but skiing initially, along with snowboarding in more recent decades, provide the cornerstone of Aspen’s identity. But even FIS throwing down the gauntlet on Aspen’s future as a host of international competition without a new ski lift failed to coalesce sufficient community unity to generate a solution.
If you are familiar with this history, or if you take the time to read a representative sample of the news stories documenting the long and winding path that is set to culminate with a March 5 vote on the Lift One corridor’s current redevelopment proposal, you know that there is one thing making the current ballot measure stand out from all of the unsuccessful prior efforts. That one thing is, of course, the location of the lift terminus itself.
After an almost half century of languishing at the very top of South Aspen Street in the form of Lift 1A, the new lift will begin about 500 feet down slope, near its original 1947 location at the corner of South Aspen and Dean streets. All of this depends upon Aspen voter approval of the current Lift One corridor ballot measure, of course.
When the proposal to move the lift terminus down to Dean Street was first floated by the city, I was skeptical. I considered the level of cooperation required to reach an agreement permitting such a change to be unachievable. I thought it signaled the further tightening of the Lift One corridor Gordian knot, and like previous redevelopment proposals, the multiplicity of interests would result in yet one more collapse.
The end result, I concluded, was that South Aspen Street would see the development of the four single-family homes permitted under current conservation zoning, and America’s original ski lift would cease to exist. It’s an alternative that remains the most likely outcome should Aspen voters nix the current proposal.
Pending Aspen voter approval, I am happy to admit that I was wrong. Everyone gave up something to get a lot for the community. Primary among the collaborators, the Gorsuch Haus folks gave up having the Lift 1A terminus adjacent to their planned hotel at the top of South Aspen Street. The Lift One Lodge folks, who already had development approvals in hand, reworked their building design in order to provide access for the ski return to pass through their property. The city of Aspen pushed for the community-serving amenities, including the lift relocation, a new ski museum, refurbishment of the Skiers Chalet building, reconstruction of Dean Street, and a consolidated Willoughby/Dolenisk open space, and put the capstone on the collaboration by agreeing to provide up to $4.36 million towards the completion of those community-serving facilities.
Extending the lift down South Aspen Street and back into the heart of the community to its original location was the missing ingredient in all of the previous Lift One redevelopment efforts. One final interested party holds the Lift One solution in their hands. Aspen voters can untie the Lift One corridor Gordian knot on March 5, not in the authoritarian manner of Alexander the Great, but rather in the context of placing community benefit ahead of perceived individual interests. I hope they do.