A lift for the Lift 1A neighborhood?
February 25, 2004
In the quiet neighborhood at the top of South Aspen Street, remnants of Aspens first chairlift stand in silent memory of the towns birth as a skiing mecca more than a half-century ago.Two of Aspens venerable ski lodges still welcome guests to rooms with a view of the old lift towers, which rise resolutely out of the snow. Riderless chairs dangle from aging cables on the forgotten-but-not-gone lift, billed as the worlds longest when it debuted in 1947.Lift 1A at the top of South Aspen Street replaced the original Lift One in 1972, carrying skiers and riders upward from an unassuming base area beneath the craggy outcroppings of Shadow Mountain on Aspen Mountains western flank. But, what was once the center of action at a fledgling resort has long been superseded by the bustling hub of the Silver Queen Gondola Plaza on the Little Nell side of the famous mountain.The sparkling plaza typifies the Aspen of today; the Lift 1A neighborhood hints at its past. The latter, after all, still boasts a couple of decrepit outhouses.But South Aspen Street is poised for a renaissance and, perhaps, a re-emergence as a portal to the mountain. Owners of the two historic lodges are making redevelopment plans. Meanwhile, investors in a parcel across the street have proposed a mammoth new hotel. The Aspen Historical Society has dreams of a ski museum and community gathering spot in the vicinity of what remains of Lift One, and various players are talking about a new Town Lift connecting that corner of town to the mountain. Finally, the city is looking to coordinate various property owners to create a pedestrian walkway along the alleylike Dean Street, linking the gondola plaza to Aspen Street.The 1,000-pound gorillaAmong the developments that would transform the Lift 1A neighborhood, assuming they advance from drawing board to reality, the proposed Lodge at Aspen Mountain is the most imposing.The owners of a 2.4-acre parcel that straddles Juan Street on the west side of South Aspen Street have proposed a hotel containing 76 rooms, 29 fractional suites, four free-market condos and 12 affordable-housing units to replace the Mine Dump apartments that currently occupy a piece of the hotel site.The physical dimensions of the project have alarmed neighboring condo owners. At more than 334,000 total square feet, it would be the largest building in Aspen, points out one detractor. The conceptual plans are still under review by the Planning and Zoning Commission, but the project spurred a round of discussions about the overall vision for the neighborhood.A year ago, the citys Community Development Department brought together various players, including property owners, the Aspen Skiing Co. and the historical society to talk about a master plan for the entire area preferably one that retains the historic flavor of the neighborhood.Im still a little bit optimistic, said Julie Ann Woods, the citys director of community development.The idea was: How do we keep the historic properties and still allow development to be part of that neighborhood? she said. We knew the historical society was real interested in doing a ski museum there.We just thought it made a lot of sense: Create a historic area where tourists could come and see what an original lift looks like maybe run it in the summertime, Woods added. I dont think theres a single ski area in America that has its original ski area base.I was sitting there hoping this group was going to decide to renovate that old lift and use it, admitted Georgia Hanson, executive director of the historical society. That Aspen has retained a piece of its original chairlift is truly amazing, Hanson contends. You can sit there and look up and sort of visualize the first days of skiing here.The old lift would provide a focal point for a long-envisioned ski museum in the neighborhood a facility dedicated both to the story of skiing in Aspen and to the resorts contribution to skiing.One of the challenges we have as an institution is getting people to our sites, Hanson said. We would love to have a downtown site and that may be as close to the downtown as we ever get.And, it is definitely time for us to pay tribute to our contribution to skiing.Whether the short stretch of Lift One that runs from Willoughby Park on Dean Street up to the base of Lift 1A could actually function again is anybodys guess, though two locals who helped build it reportedly claimed they could go out and start it tomorrow, according to Woods. Operational or not, the lift is listed on the Colorado and National Register of Historic Places and cant be removed. Other long-standing links to Aspens early days as a ski resort, however, wont be as easy to freeze in time.The owners of the adjacent Holland House successfully petitioned the City Council to have the citys historic designation removed from their lodge, virtually ensuring greater flexibility when they bring forward a plan for its redevelopment. Only one of the two buildings that comprise the neighboring Skiers Chalet is protected by a city historical designation; big changes to the lodge are anticipated when a redevelopment plan is submitted.Both lodges have seen alterations over the years, but both date back to Aspens early days as a resort, as does the former Norway Lodge across the street, now known as the Mine Dump apartments. The Mine Dumps provide cheap digs for locals, but their days appear numbered, given their owners desire to redevelop the parcel with the Lodge at Aspen Mountain. With the hotel proposal, however, has come talk of a new Town Lift along the alignment of Lift One, bringing lift access down to Dean Street. The hotels developers have offered to finance the replacement of Lift 1A with a speedier lift, similar to the Ruthies chair that serves the upper half of the mountain, above 1A.The Skico envisioned a Town Lift in conjunction with the replacement of 1A in its 1997 Aspen Mountain Master Plan. With the short connector lift in place, skiers and boarders would no longer have to make the trudge up icy and dicey Aspen Street. Motorists dropping off skiers could avoid the most treacherous stretch of the steep street, as well.Is there an opportunity here to improve pedestrian flow to 1A? I think so, said Sunny Vann, planning consultant for the hotels developers. There are all kinds of opportunities up there. Were just the thousand-pound gorilla getting everybody to focus on the issue.Town Lift wheels turning?A Town Lift isnt on the Skicos front burner these days, but if private partners want to finance its construction, the ski company is all ears, according to Bill Kane, Skico vice president of planning.Theres a lot of enthusiasm for this right now, he said. If others are really prepared to shoulder the capital expense, were willing to look at it.Were open to the tone of that discussion.Certainly there are plenty of properties that may have an interest in construction of the Town Lift.A short walk down Dean Street is the St. Regis Aspen. The hotel is poised for its own $30 million renovation this spring to create a new spa and a wing of suites to be sold in fractional shares. A Town Lift would give St. Regis guests and homeowners closer access to the mountain than the gondola. On the corner of Durant Avenue and Aspen Street, a block downhill from Dean Street, the Dancing Bear Lodge has already been approved and plans for the ChartHouse Lodge are coming forward.I love the idea of the little Town Lift, said Yasmine dePagter, whose family runs the Holland House. I dont know of anybody who doesnt like the idea of the Town Lift.The historical societys Hanson is hoping the same players who might support the lift would back the ski museum, as well.Its their front yard, so to speak, she said. Im excited about it. I see it as an opportunity for us to get help moving toward our goal.Janet Urquharts e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org