Dueling developers couldn’t get on same page about chair
The Aspen Skiing Co. in late 2015 met with developers of two hotel proposals on South Aspen Street to present options on how to bring a new chairlift farther down the hill, but discussions between representatives of the Gorsuch Haus and Lift One Lodge that involved altering property lines and building plans ran aground.
Jim DeFrancia of Norway Island, which is proposing the 81-key, 70,000-square-foot Gorsuch Haus at the base of Lift 1A, said this week that when developers come back to City Council on March 27, they will present changes to the project that are “meaningful and substantive.” At the last check in with the council, Mayor Steve Skadron said he expects a project that is 30 percent smaller in terms of mass and scale and includes improved access to a new chairlift than what has been proposed so far.
DeFrancia said the Gorsuch Haus team will be close to the mayor’s condition of a 30 percent smaller project. They will return to council with a new site plan that includes a clear connection between the public street and the lift, he said.
“When one arrives at the traffic circle, you will know you have arrived at Lift 1A, not a hotel with a lift behind it,” DeFrancia said, referencing a concern that has been expressed throughout the public process on Gorsuch Haus.
The lift, however, will not come lower down the hill beyond the property line of the Gorsuch Haus parcel, which the developer is under contract to purchase from SkiCo.
Whether or not that will be enough to satisfy city council remains to be seen. The council has called for a feasibility study of bringing the lift farther down the hill, which the city’s planning office is in the process of hiring a consultant to conduct.
The SkiCo in 2014 looked at the same question and identified potential bottom terminals on the Gorsuch Haus site, the Lift One Lodge site and in a city park adjacent to Dean Street.
“We shared those studies with a large group of stakeholders including the Browns, the Gorsuch team, the city of Aspen, the FIS and anyone else interested,” according to a statement released on Tuesday. “We cannot answer the question as to why the various parties did not move forward with this alignment or alternate terminal sites. We would reiterate that we are powerless to put a lift on property we don’t own without the consent and concurrence of the owner.”
The original Lift 1, which opened in 1947, began off of Dean Street, but a replacement chair installed in the early 1970s that is still running — and is carrying the world’s best ski racers this week with the 2017 FIS World Cup Finals in town — begins three blocks up the hill. Bringing the lift closer to its initial origination point has become a rallying cry for many in the community in the midst of the Gorsuch Haus review, although making that vision a reality would require cooperation between multiple property owners and interested parties.
The Lift One Lodge is an approved-but-unbuilt project owned by a partnership including brothers Michael and Aaron Brown, along with Jason Grosfeld of Los Angeles, who paid $22 million for the site in May 2015, after prior developers secured approvals for a timeshare lodge in 2011.
According to Michael Brown, city planning director at the time Chris Bendon convened a meeting with the two hotel developers and the ski company in fall 2015, asking them to come up with a solution to bring the lift farther down the hill. The SkiCo presented its studies showing how a lift could be placed on the Browns’ property, roughly in the location of the existing Skiers Chalet building south of Gilbert Street. Doing so would require the Browns to forgo their entitlements granted to the prior owner, as the lift terminal would be located where the hotel’s east wing is planned.
The SkiCo alignment to Dean Street, besides the reworking of the Browns’ site plan, would also require the renegotiation of a land sale agreement between the Dolinsek family and the city, which purchased the Dolinsek parcel adjacent to the Lift 1 corridor for $2.5 million in 2014 on the condition that no chairlift or ski area infrastructure, including overhead cables, ever be permitted on the land.
Brown said he was willing to consider going back to the drawing board on the Lift One Lodge project, but reworking the site plan would require a concession from the Gorsuch Haus developers. In order to make up for the lodging that would be replaced by the lower lift terminal, the Browns would need to build on some of the property under the control of Gorsuch Haus.
DeFrancia said his team saw the lift-to-Gilbert-Street proposal as potentially having merit, but that it also raised significant questions, including public access, since the terminal would likely be located behind a wall of buildings from Aspen Street. The city has resisted such a lift-placement concept on the Gorsuch Haus site.
Still, Gorsuch Haus developers were willing to entertain discussions about giving up part of their site to the Browns to achieve the lower lift, DeFrancia said. However, they were not prepared to enter serious negotiations on the concept without first securing a land use approval for the plan they had proposed, DeFrancia said.
At the time, Gorsuch Haus had yet to submit a formal land use application and the Browns were about to apply for an amendment to their 2011 approval. DeFrancia said he proposed letting both processes go forward, and once both entitlements were in place, the parties could come together again with the city and the SkiCo to negotiate a lower lift placement.
Brown said he does not recall DeFrancia taking the position that he should first secure his entitlement. According to him, the Gorsuch Haus team was quick to dismiss the idea of bringing the new chair onto the Lift One Lodge site, preferring instead to seek an approval with a new lift in the same place as today.
DeFrancia said it was the Browns who took a hard line, refusing to proceed with the a plan to get other entitlements first and telling the Gorsuch Haus developers they would oppose them publicly, a promise that has been fulfilled. Brown told the Planning and Zoning Commission in September that he hopes SkiCo scraps the idea of selling its real estate to the Gorsuch Haus and goes back to the drawing board. The Browns previously hired a public relations firm to mount a campaign against the Gorsuch Haus.
Dysfunction is evident between the two parties, with each accusing the other of making false statements to the public. The two developers have not had formal substantive contact since the breakdown of the late-2015 discussions.
“We were then and are now, with the ski company, eager to work on something to bring the lift down the hill,” Brown said.
DeFrancia said he has little appetite to reenter discussions with the Browns, as the Gorsuch Haus team has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing the pending redevelopment plan. That plan, he said, achieves the city’s major goals: improved access to a new chair lift — Gorsuch Haus is proposing to run a public shuttle from Rubey Park to the top of South Aspen Street — and new lodge rooms.
SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle said that if the landholding parties that control the future Lift 1A were willing to compromise with each other, then the ski company would “absolutely” be willing to discuss bringing the lift farther down the hill. The alignments proposed by the company’s lift planning department are technically feasible, he said — all depending on surrounding property owners and how much space they would be willing to give a new chairlift.