Hanging in the balance: Aspen’s Lift One neighborhood
December 12, 2008
ASPEN ” In a town like Aspen that’s full of highly educated, opinionated and passionate people, getting two individuals to agree on anything political can be a feat. And if the debate involves the future of our little ski hamlet, chances are those two people will end up agreeing to disagree.
So when 19 people in September agreed on a half-billion dollar development plan that will forever change the neighborhood where Aspen skiing was born, it was a jaw-dropping event.
“The neighbors unanimously support this master plan, an unheard-of phenomenon in my experience,” said Tim Ditzler, the facilitator overseeing the group.
“That tells me the community is ready to have this neighborhood transformed from the ignored area it is to becoming one with vitality again, just as it once was.”
This past spring, 27 Aspen residents were selected by the Aspen City Council to serve on the Lift One Task Force COWOP, which is a government acronym for “Convenience and Welfare of the Public.” They were charged with creating a comprehensive development plan for Aspen Mountain’s western base area, at the top of South Aspen Street. And from April to September, they collectively logged more than 2,000 hours toward the effort by meeting every week for at least four hours.
The group this fall voted 19-1 to recommend that the council approve a master plan that serves as a land-use application for nearly 300,000 square feet of commercial and residential space. Six people on the task force were absent and didn’t vote; one abstained.
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Why would 27 Aspenites give up hundreds of hours of their personal time in favor of bureaucratic meetings and resort planning?
Because they live in the neighborhood; ski that side of the mountain; care about Aspen’s future; are for and against development, and myriad other reasons. The council hand-picked each individual in an effort to assemble a broad cross-section of residents and to represent as many community interests as possible.
“Everyone walked in with a different agenda, but in the end nearly everyone supported the plan we came up with,” said task force member Allyn Harvey. “Nobody got everything they wanted, but working together for six months in a well-thought-out process produced something interesting and exciting that nobody could have imagined at the start of it all.”
At the outset, a number of vocal task force members were adamant that a ski lift must reach down to Dean Street for return-skiing closer to town. As a result, the overall site design revolved around uphill transportation and access to the mountain. In fact, one of the main reasons the COWOP was initiated is because hotel developers originally proposed projects that required the new 1A chairlift to move 230 feet farther uphill.
“Over the period of time we met, ‘It’s the lift, stupid” was our mantra,” said task force member Andrew Kole. “When we first arrived, the split on the lift coming down to Dean Street was divided 50-50 with what looked like a line in the sand that no one was going to cross.
“Over 27 weeks, through what I call ‘compromise consensus,’ we came to a 90 percent agreement to endorse the final product.”
But as the development program evolved and the community became aware of it, the main concern among locals became the size of the lodge buildings and the crowds, traffic and activity they would generate.
At this stage, the council’s endorsement of the plan is by no means a sure thing. What will happen to the neighborhood if the master plan is rejected? Nobody knows.
That final product is a recommendation to approve the following on an 8-acre site with multiple property owners: two hotels, commercial and retail space including bars and restaurants, affordable housing, a snowmelted South Aspen Street with shuttle van transportation, a ski museum, public ski lockers, a new surface lift, a new high-speed 1A chairlift and a host of other public amenities.
The Lodge at Aspen Mountain is proposed by Centurion Partners and represented by John Sarpa. It would be a 167,000-square-foot hotel and ownership lodge on the west side of South Aspen Street, where the Mine Dump apartments used to be. It includes 75 hotel rooms, 26 fractional-ownership condos, five free-market residences, up to 18,000 square feet of commercial space and a minimum of 238 underground parking spaces.
Across the street and slightly farther up the hill would be the Lift One Lodge, proposed by developers David Wilhelm, Jim Chaffin and Jim Light under the auspices of Roaring Fork Mountain Lodge-Aspen LLC and represented by Bob Daniel. It’s proposed at 135,000 square feet and would be built below Lift 1A, in part where the Holland House once was.
It’s proposed as a mixed-use membership lodge and whole-ownership project consisting of 35 membership condos, five free-market residences, up to 9,000 square feet of commercial space and 250 underground parking spaces.
The defunct Skiers Chalet Steak House building, also owned by Roaring Fork Mountain Lodge-Aspen LLC, would contain a brew pub, an affordable restaurant and public ski lockers on the ground floor and dormitory affordable housing rooms on its second and third floors.
The Skier Chalet Lodge building would be relocated to Willoughby Park, where it’s planned to be used for a historical museum by the Aspen Historical Society.
The entire area includes three access zones: A ski path running from the bottom of Lift 1A through the historic Lift One area and Willoughby Park. A platter-pull lift would start where the historic Lift One bottom terminal is located in Willoughby Park, and take riders uphill to a new, high-speed quad.
To the west, a dedicated pedestrian walkway would lead up to the base of Lift 1A. At the top of the pathway, just below the lift, a short escalator would run up through a corner of the Lift One Lodge and deliver skiers to the new lift.
Farther west and separated by a greenbelt, or garden area, would be a realigned, 22-foot-wide South Aspen Street for vehicle access to both hotels, as well as for emergency vehicles. The general public would access the area from a skier drop-off zone at the intersection of Dean and South Aspen streets, where visitors could walk or catch a shuttle van to the base of the mountain.
When the Lodge at Aspen Mountain was voted down by the City Council in fall 2007 because of its size, and the Lift One Lodge was proposed a few months later, Mayor Mick Ireland initiated the master plan effort and convinced the council to pursue a COWOP. The hotel developers also were convinced to participate, knowing that their individual land-use applications had a better likelihood of getting approved as part of a master plan.
The goal was that if development is ultimately going to happen in the historic Lift One neighborhood, there ought to be a well-planned vision for it.
The COWOP process exists in the law books of many municipalities and was created so government can participate with the community at large in a land-use application even though it’s a land owner. (The city of Aspen and the Aspen Skiing Co. are landowners in the neighborhood, in addition to the developers.) The COWOP also enables a community-wide conversation about what should be built on a site, said Aspen Community Development Director Chris Bendon.
“It creates a venue for listening, understanding and determining how to weigh all of the compromises,” he said.
Other COWOPs that have shaped development in Aspen include Obermeyer Place, the fire station on Hopkins Avenue and Burlingame Ranch affordable housing.
But a COWOP task force’s recommendation does not guarantee a government approval. A new recycling center on Rio Grande Place and a new building for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association on Main Street were recommended by COWOPs but were never built.
“[COWOPS] that do well are the ones that are politically supported,” Bendon said. “[Lift One] is the most complex and had the most number of trade-offs. This was way beyond a Rubic’s Cube.”
For Sarpa and Daniel, they entered the COWOP with much trepidation: They agreed to let 25 people design their development and were told they would have to pay for all of the public amenities.
“The two developers were in a live situation and you knew what they must have been going through because you could witness the shades of green on their faces,” Bendon said. “They would get up and walk around and you weren’t sure if they were going to pull the fire alarm or what.”
Sarpa, who over the years has sat in hundreds of meetings as a developer and community member, said the Lift One master planning was the most impressive effort he’s been involved with.
“It was one of the most open, candid and productive exchange of ideas I’ve ever been part of,” he said. “This is more comprehensive than any land-use application … the community benefits drive the buildings.”
Task force members realized that the buildings were going to be large as a result of what they were asking the developers to pay for ” tens of millions of dollars in public amenities that further the group’s mission to restore vitality to a once-vibrant, now-silent neighborhood.
“Overall, I think it was a good process, because it produced a plan that does quite a bit to address issues of relevance and accessibility,” Harvey said. “I think the surface lift is, though far from ideal, a reasonable and imaginative compromise for getting people up the hill. The recycling of the Skiers Chalet Steak House, which has been sitting vacant for a few years now, into some kind of affordable pub or burger joint and a home to locals’ lockers makes the neighborhood more like it used to be, not less. Those are ideas that came out of this process that would never come out through the standard application and review process.”
Daniel, who represents the Lift One Lodge, said while he and his team master-planned the east side of South Aspen Street for development, it’s nowhere near as good as what the COWOP created.
“No one would have designed these buildings without a plan first and a group of dedicated people did that,” he told the council at a Dec. 8 public hearing. “Now we have a plan with certainty on where this town is going.”
In true Aspen form, the task force and the COWOP process has not been immune to criticism. Some critics say the group had hidden or personal agendas and as a result, not all residents have been represented.
“I for one, am feeling left out and disheartened,” Aspen resident Phyllis Bronson told the council on Dec. 8, adding she doesn’t like the size of the project or task force members pushing their positions. “It’s not the role of the COWOP to be a lobbying group.”
Task force members have strongly pushed their recommendation because they feel that, after all of the issues were sorted out, the site plan they designed is the best it could be for the area, given the number of public amenities.
“Lift One was a huge commitment for a large number of people and I take huge umbrage at the implication that we aren’t all caring citizens because the cross-section led to fabulous dialogue,” said task force member Georgia Hanson. “We were led to believe that our time was well spent and our decisions would be taken to heart.”
Sarpa pointed out that the notion that the task force was made up of uninformed residents is simply untrue ” developers and the COWOP’s support staff brought in an army of specialists from architects to resort planners to economic analysts to traffic engineers and more.
The other major criticism of the COWOP is that the important details of the development ” like its mass, height and scale ” were rushed in the final days of the task force’s work, creating a half-cooked proposal that now sits in front of the City Council.
Mayor Ireland is one of those who believe that many details were left out in an effort to reach the finish line. In order to protect the public, Ireland said, he cannot approve a 50-page ordinance without assurances that have yet to be addressed.
Since Nov. 10, there have been four public hearings on the application. The final one is scheduled for Jan. 14, when the council is expected to vote on the master plan.
“The heart of the problem with this process is that we can’t address the issues because of the time constraint,” Ireland said Dec. 8, when the council had planned to make a final decision but delayed it so developers could answer still more questions. “The COWOP was going smoothly and then all of a sudden ” whoosh.”
Many task force members agree the COWOP was accelerated at the end, but to some degree that was only natural.
“While it did feel rushed at the end of the task force, that was because we had a firm deadline, which I think is good,” Harvey said. “We needed to do our best to come up with a great site plan and pass it on to City Council. Even if we had spent another month working on mass, scale, height and housing, the City Council would have made significant changes to whatever we decided. So why not leave those discussions to the developers and elected officials?”
In the beginning, reaching a consensus on even the smallest things like what time to meet were painful, observers said. And for the first two months, people weren’t willing to budge from their positions.
“Once we clearly got in mind what we were asked to do, and as we worked together week after week, the individuals came to trust each other more, and worked together to build consensus,” Ditzler said. “Yes, the COWOP members paid special attention to what the land owners had to say, but the task force designed the master plan, not the developers.”