Owners of the Mountain House Lodge won unanimous Aspen City Council approval on Monday to tear down the structure and replace it with two single-family homes. However, it’s possible the 26-room lodge will remain, as the council granted a two-year window — at the request of the hoteliers — to explore alternatives.
Owners Michael and Aaron Brown — who also own the Hotel Aspen and Molly Gibson Lodge — vowed to continue working with city planners as they write Aspen’s lodging-incentive program, which is expected this summer. How those incentives shape up will weigh heavily on the Browns’ decision to tear down the lodge or retain it for future operation. Aaron said the hotel will continue to operate this summer, though its future is uncertain after that.
“I’d hate to see it shuttered,” Councilman Dwayne Romero said, while also asking the Browns if they would commit to operating it as a hotel for one full year.
“I think we’d like to have the time we need to explore the options, all the options available, without having to make a commitment to doing one thing or another,” Aaron said.
The Browns, who took possession of the property through bankruptcy proceedings in December, won approval to divide the property’s 12,000-square-foot lot, located at 905 E. Hopkins Ave., into two 6,000-square-foot lots. Once the split is complete, the lodge becomes a nonconforming structure under city code, so staff recommended tearing it down within the required 180 days. But in the end, the majority of council agreed that it was a “no-lose” situation by allowing the two-year extension.
“If the applicants are willing to keep their options open for a longer period of time, I don’t see what the downside is at all,” Councilman Adam Frisch said. “Hopefully they will come to a point where they might be able to retain this (hotel) — because I’d rather have that happen than it just being torn down and let it sit there for a while as an empty hole.”
Mayor Steve Skadron expressed discomfort with the agreement, referring to it as forcing the council to put a “gun to the puppy.” He suggested a continuance so that the Browns could see if their values align with the forthcoming lodging incentives.
“It fails to become a negotiation,” Skadron said. “We have the demand placed on council where we have no option. It’s not unlike what we saw on the South Aspen Street project: ‘Give me this, or it gets demolished.’”
Skadron also questioned the Browns’ desire to work with the city on potential incentives, citing quotes from Michael Brown in the Aspen Daily News on the controversial Hotel Aspen redevelopment application. After numerous discussions about the application, and significant scaling back of three free-market residential homes proposed in the project, the Browns won 3-1 council approval, with Skadron dissenting.
“You mentioned, ‘The city would need compelling commercial incentives in order to continue this as a lodge,’” Skadron said. “I want to know if there really is any desire on your part to see this as a hotel property in the long run.”
“We’re in the lodging business,” Michael Brown said. “There’s no one that would have a better chance of having a successful hotel if the case was made to be compelling against other uses. We have our minds open.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, five residents spoke out in support for retention of the lodge. John Werning, who operated the Mountain House Lodge for more than 30 years, said that it is possible to save it, but the city and hotel owners are going to have to work together.
“The economic impacts on our town (if the lodge were torn down) would be significant,” he said. “That’s 50-plus dinners every night, 50 lunches, 50 lift tickets, concert tickets and lots of retail.”
The official council vote was 4-0, with Councilman Art Daily absent. Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she would have supported the continuance, to allow review of the lodging incentives before demolition was approved.
“If we can come up with a program that works for you, that’s just great,” she told the Browns. “If not, then we’ll go ahead and revisit what you’ve brought tonight.”
Stan Clauson, representing the Browns, said the city underestimates how long those incentives will take to write and how long it will take for them to be applied to the Mountain House Lodge.
Ultimately, the two-year window was agreed upon. Community Development Director Chris Bendon said staff was reluctant to support that time line because it opens the possibility for multiple applications to be submitted on the property and weighed against each other.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with extending it by two years, but do be prepared to have” pursuit of multiple approvals, he said. “And council has not liked that situation in the past.”
In other business
A public hearing has been set for May 27 on the proposed expansion of the Pitkin County Library.
In 2012, the library was approved for an approximate 7,200-square-foot addition, with a height of 28 feet. In November of that year, Pitkin County voters rejected the $10 million expansion on two ballot issues. The first asked voters to increase property tax support for the library to raise $141,000 annually for ongoing costs associated with the expansion. The second asked voters to authorize $5.4 million in borrowing, to be repaid through property taxes over a period of up to 25 years, to fund the expansion project and an extensive remodeling of the existing building. Both measures failed by about 65 to 35 percent.
Since then, the library has reconsidered its plans, now proposing a more modest addition at 20 feet in height and with a smaller footprint. The square footage is similar, but about 2,000 square feet would be built within the existing footprint.