Affordable housing, traffic dominate forum on Aspen’s Lift One plan

From left, Michael Brown, Aspen City Councilman Bert Myrin, Jeff Gorsuch, and John Doyle shake hands before a public forum discussing the Lift One plan at Aspen City Hall on Wednesday evening.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Proponents and foes of the Lift One Corridor Plan did their best to sway voters at a forum Wednesday night by presenting their visions of what the development at the western base area of Aspen Mountain will mean for the town.

The proponents and critics traded their visions and a few barbs at a forum hosted by The Aspen Times. The election is March 5, though ballots are in Aspen residents’ hands now.

Proponents Jeff Gorsuch, Michael Brown and Jim DeFrancia said the Lift One Lodge and Gorsuch Haus combined with associated bars, restaurants, skier services, a ski museum and a replacement for Lift 1A will restore that area of Aspen Mountain to its former glory.

They said the project is vital for the evolution of the community and for economic vitality.

But Aspen Councilman Bert Myrin and Aspen resident John Doyle, who both oppose the project, said the vitality comes at too great a cost in construction impacts, increased traffic and increases in the shortage of affordable housing.

Myrin said members of the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission characterized the project as providing public amenities at the cost of affordable housing.

“That’s the sacrificial decision people need to make,” Myrin said.

The proponents hammered on the public benefits of the project.

Brown, who is a partner in the Lift One Lodge, said a critical component of the overall project is bringing a replacement for Lift 1A about 500 feet farther downhill. A coalition of the developers, city of Aspen representatives and consultants figured out the engineering necessary to achieve the popular goal of making the lift accessible from Dean Street.

“It was sort of an Excalibur moment,” he said.

The Lift One Lodge would add 34 fractional interest and six full-interest residential units to the base. Brown was willing to redesign the project to accommodate the extended chairlift.

He also touted the hotels as adding much-needed tourist accommodations where they will be most effective — at one of the portals to the mountain. Combined, they will provide 185 keys to units available to tourists.

“These hotels are in the exact right locations, as determined by the city,” he said.

Jeff Gorsuch, a partner in the proposed 81-room Gorsuch Haus hotel, stressed that the project presented an excellent opportunity to bring World Cup ski racing back to Aspen. He claimed the project, which would add 320,000 square feet of development, is about “community first, development second.”

Doyle and Myrin questioned how the project benefits the community, particularly because the two projects combined will only house 67 employees. Lift One Lodge will employ an estimated 100 workers, according to Brown. Gorsuch Haus likely will employ 65, though it had earlier been estimated as high as 80, according to Jim DeFrancia of Lowe Enterprises, a hotel company that is a partner in the project.

Doyle questioned why the developers weren’t housing more of their workers.

“I feel that if they’re community-minded like they say they are, how is that possible? They’re not housing the employees they agreed to. It changed from 100 percent of employees housed to the current level, seemingly overnight,” he said.

Doyle was referring to a prior Lift One Lodge approval that required housing for all 35 full-time employees.

Brown countered that both projects are using an incentive provision in the city land-use code that reduces employee-housing mitigation in return for construction of high-density lodging.

“We depended on the land-use code that’s in place right now,” Brown said. “These properties fully mitigate for what’s in the code.”

In addition, Brown said the projects would raise millions of dollars through a sales tax dedicated to housing and a real estate transfer assessment. Those funds could help the city build its proposed Burlingame III affordable-housing project and get the BMC West project started, he said.

Traffic also was a point of contention in the debate.

Doyle said Aspen residents would be forced to absorb thousands of dump truck trips as dirt is hauled off site. He said the city’s planning department estimated there could be as many as 11,000 dump truck trips added to Aspen’s traffic during construction.

Brown said the figure was high because much of the dirt will be required onsite. DeFrancia also noted that all construction has impacts, but they are temporary. Most of the earth moving will be carried out during offseasons, he said.

Brown sparked groans of disbelief from some audience members when he said the development team’s traffic consultant determined there would be “no negative impacts from the development” in the long run.

DeFrancia jumped in and said the project will create an environment where guests don’t need private vehicles and that employees housed outside of Aspen will have incentives to take RFTA buses.

He said the current scenario at the Lift 1A base promotes more traffic. Guests at the Limelight, Dancing Bear and St. Regis Hotels — closest to Lift 1A — don’t want to climb an icy street to access a slow, antiquated chairlift. Instead they get the properties to shuttle them to the base of the Silver Queen Gondola, adding to Aspen’s traffic congestion.

The Lift One properties are planning to accommodate some traffic. An underground parking garage will include 182 spaces for their use and 50 public spaces.

Myrin predicted that Aspen’s housing shortage would grow more severe and traffic more intense once the W Hotel and Aspen Club are completed. Adding the Lift One properties to the mix will make the problems even worse. Doyle concurred that Aspen residents will live with the impacts of construction for years.

“To deny it is ridiculous,” he said.

The two sides also sparred over how effective the proposal will be at restoring vitality and if that should be a priority. The proponents said the “hot” beds at the Gorsuch Haus and the “warm” beds at Lift One Lodge, which may not turn over as frequently, will supply customers for a broad spectrum of Aspen’s restaurants and shops. Aspen has lost an estimated 1,700 lodge rooms since 1990 as property values soared and developers converted hotels to second-home condos. The new project would help offset a portion of that loss, they said.

“We are a tourist town. We are a tourist economy,” DeFrancia said. “We need lodging.”

Gorsuch Haus will be “an upper-end product” with rates on par with the Hotel Jerome, Little Nell and St. Regis, he said.

Doyle questioned if Aspen needs any more high-end lodge rooms.

Brown responded, “Does it really matter if a guest is staying at the Tyrolean Lodge, the Mountain Chalet, the Hotel Jerome or the Little Nell? They’re all coming here because they want to be skiing here in our community.”

Myrin said the city government’s priority should be focused on addressing its residents’ needs. A lot of free-market affordable housing has been displaced because owners can rent it out for more money through vacation rental sites.

“Our focus needs to be on keeping community here, not continuing to build 1,700 beds,” he said.

On the tourist accommodation side, Myrin noted that Aspen is near capacity at certain times — Fourth of July, Christmas and New Year’s weeks and a handful of others. But the majority of the time can be better utilized, he said.

“I’m not persuaded that we need to be busier on our busiest nights,” Myrin said.

The debate also focused on the status of the Lift 1A replacement — the top issue for some Aspen residents. During earlier hearings on the plans, there was widespread support for bringing the lift down to Dean Street.

Myrin stressed the city possesses no leverage to make sure the replacement lift gets built.

Brown countered, “I think that’s amazing fear-mongering.”

He said Aspen is blessed to have “one of the best ski operators in North America in the Aspen Skiing Co.” Their customer service is paramount, so they will replace the lift, he said.

DeFrancia said Skico is contractually obligated to install the lift as Lift One Lodge and Gorsuch Haus progress, and Skico will pay for the lift.

“In the end of the day, the ski company is in the ski business. They want a new lift,” he said. “They want to enhance the vitality of that portal to the mountain and they are particularly interested in returning World Cup ski racing to Aspen.”

DeFrancia said World Cup officials are demanding not just a new lift but an improved base area as a condition for returning.

“One of the FIS people said, ‘I don’t think you understand. In Europe, when people are watching international ski racing in Aspen, they think they’re looking at a Third World nation,’” DeFrancia said.

Without Gorsuch Haus, the replacement of the lift would be delayed for an unknown amount of time, he said.

If Aspen voters defeat the ballot question March 5, Brown said his team would pursue construction of Lift One Lodge as approved in 2011. That design would not accommodate the chairlift farther down the mountain.

DeFrancia said the Gorsuch team would go back to the drawing board and the chairlift’s lower terminal would be close to the existing location.

“I don’t see that personally being in the interest of the community,” he said.