Can developers bring a neighborhood back to life?
The base of Aspen Mountain’s west side is arguably one of Aspen’s most historically important neighborhoods, yet it stands all but abandoned, run-down and virtually devoid of activity.Aspen’s skiing history blossomed on South Aspen Street 60 years ago with the opening of Lift 1, the world’s longest and fastest at the time. It put Aspen on the map as an up and coming ski town. Aspen hosted its first big race in 1950 – the Federation Internationale du Ski (FIS) World Alpine Championship, a major sporting event that drew top ski racers in every discipline of the time. Since then, World Cup races have been held on the west side of the mountain off and on since 1968.Throughout the 1950s and part of the ’60s, the west side of of the mountain was the place to be to make your turns, then grab a beer and a burger at Skiers Chalet, or ski down into town.
“I remember one-hour waits at chair No. 1 and skiing down to the Red Onion,” recalled Ralph Melville, who in 1954 opened the Mountain Chalet, now a 60-room lodge on Durant Avenue. “If you were lucky, you’d remember where you left your skis in the snowbank the next day.” Small lodges like the Holland House, the Norway Lodge and Skiers Chalet popped up all over the neighborhood to serve out-of-towners.”My father bought the Victorian house there and while he tended bar at the Red Onion and the Jerome, he rented the rooms out,” said Yasmine dePagter, who was born in 1956 and grew up at the Holland House. “It was next to the lift, it was a no-brainer.”The heyday of that side of Ajax was short-lived, however. The Ski Corp. made Little Nell the focal point of the mountain in the mid-1950s, with a chairlift and a hopping après-ski bar and restaurant several blocks to the east. Replacing Lift 1 with the 1A chairlift, about two blocks farther uphill, in 1972 didn’t help matters.”In the early ’70s it got really quiet on that side of the mountain,” said Steve Wright, who operated the Skiers Chalet Steakhouse and offered locals’ lunch specials. “It started to fade as a focal point.”A stroll through the neighborhood today reveals a storied history of skiing through dilapidated faux-Bavarian chalets surrounded by luxury condos. The lodges that served those postwar skiers are shuttered, having been purchased by developers proposing a large hotel and membership lodge in an effort to revitalize the area and make a buck at the same time.
“This is where Aspen’s skiing began, and this part of town was it,” said John Sarpa of Centurion Partners, which is proposing the Lodge at Aspen Mountain, an 80-room hotel on South Aspen Street. “This is the last great opportunity to recapture that.”Developers plan to raze the Holland House to make way for the Lift One Lodge, a 32-suite membership property. The Skiers Chalet buildings would be moved downhill and converted into a ski museum and employee housing.New development on Aspen Mountain’s western side, including a new high-speed lift, also would distribute skiers more evenly on the mountain. Dave Corbin, vice president of planning for the Aspen Skiing Co., said of the 300,000 annual skier visits on Ajax, only about 10 percent originate at Lift 1A.The aging remnants of the original Lift 1 sit rusting and abandoned just above Dean Street, but developers Bob Daniel and Sunny Vann – acting on behalf of real estate company Chaffin and Light – plan to memorialize the history of skiing by refurbishing the chairlift and creating a ski museum in Willoughby Park, a 51-by-115-foot strip of open space below the Skiers Chalet. “This side of town has been neglected,” Daniel said. “There’s been a deterioration of these assets with no real caretaker.”The glory days of the neighborhood below Shadow Mountain are gone, but developers hope to bring them back.”It’s changed already, and it’s going to change again,” Vann said.
• The Lodge at Aspen MountainThe 80-room hotel would replace the Mine Dumps apartments, formerly the Norway Lodge built in the 1950s. The property is located on the west side of South Aspen Street, below the Shadow Mountain Condominiums and a short walk from the 1A lift. The development is currently being reviewed by the City Council and a decision is expected this fall. If the project is denied, Centurion Partners already has approval for 84,000 square feet of residential development, including 14 luxury townhouses.The 175,000-square-foot hotel also includes 21 fractional-ownership lodging units, nearly 4,000 square feet of meeting space and dozens of affordable-housing units.Developers also have offered to pay for a chairlift to replace the slow-moving, fixed-grip Lift 1A, a snowmelt system on South Aspen Street and wide sidewalks from the new lift to Durant Avenue. Under pressure from the City Council in May, Sarpa spiced up the proposal by deed-restricting the hotel rooms for 35 years, meaning there could be no conversion into fractional ownership units or condominiums in that period.
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Sarpa has said in the past that the hotel would fill an enormous need for lodging rooms – Aspen has lost more than 1,000 visitor rooms since 1991. And, he argues, the base of Ajax’s west side is virtually empty, making it the perfect location. Furthermore, with World Cup races back in Aspen each winter, a hotel is needed to serve officials, racers and their supporters.”It was hard to get and keep World Cup, and now we are providing the appropriate infrastructure for it,” Sarpa said. “This is the last piece; it’s an extremely important piece.”The neighbors surrounding the development generally support the hotel, mostly because of the much-needed lodging rooms that would revitalize the area.The Mine Dumps will be torn down this fall, and the property will be prepared for construction next spring. Whether it’s townhouses or a hotel remains to be seen.•Lift One LodgeChaffin and Light, longtime developers in the Roaring Fork Valley, purchased the Holland House in 2005 for $5.5 million and the Skiers Chalet for a similar amount in 2006. Their membership project is being financially backed in part by Lubert-Adler, a real estate private-equity firm.
“What we saw was an opportunity for a master plan instead of just a project,” Daniel said. “You look at the location of this – Aspen Mountain is the key asset to this community.”We want to create accessibility, recognize history and create vitality.”The Historic Preservation Commission has endorsed the plans for old Lift 1 and the ski museum, but the entire package must be reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Commission and then the City Council.The developers plan to build, own and operate the lodge over the long term. In what they call a hybrid between fractional ownership and timeshares, they plan to sell “membership interests” in the lodge. “You don’t get a deeded interest,” Daniel said. “You are buying a right to use.”Lift One Lodge, located on the east side of South Aspen Street, includes 32 lodge suites, which will contain a total of 97 separate rental rooms and would be made available to the general public when not used by the members. The three-story building would occupy roughly the same footprint as the Holland House and stand 37 feet tall. There also would be a public restaurant and an après-ski deck at the base. There would be lockers, and spa and fitness facilities for lodge members and guests in the 114,000-square-foot building. On the second floor would be another deck and restaurant, and a third deck overlooking the chairlift would be on the top floor. An underground parking garage would accommodate 115 spaces.
• Public amenitiesIn 1991, Aspen voters supported the use of Willoughby Park for a ski museum, but the Aspen Historical Society has been unable to establish it. The Lift One Lodge developers plan to move the Skiers Chalet Lodge to the park and rehabilitate it for museum use. It would then be donated to the Historical Society. Developers also plan to refurbish the original Lift One towers and ticket booth.”You can’t even see it, and it’s where skiing started,” Daniel said. “We want to celebrate the history of skiing.”Following tradition, people still ski from Aspen Mountain to points along Aspen Street and down to Dean Street. Honoring that tradition, developers propose a “ski through” lodge that would enable skiers to pass through the property, along the Lift 1 towers to the park, museum and parking garage.In conjunction with the developers of the Lodge at Aspen Mountain, the Lift One Lodge developers plan to make a number of improvements to the steep and notoriously icy South Aspen Street. The road would be narrowed, with two traffic lanes, no street parking and wide sidewalks.Lift One developers also suggest that a shuttle system connect the lodge with the Rubey Park bus depot and the walkway to the Gondola Plaza at Dean Street during the winter.The historically designated Skiers Chalet Steakhouse would be renovated and converted into six one-bedroom affordable-housing units. Three one-bedroom and two two-bedroom units are planned for inclusion in the new Lift One Lodge. There is no free-market residential component to the project – the developers decided to forgo their right to 27,000 square feet of space.”We recognized that the community wanted lodging, and this will maximize it,” Vann said.
City Councilman Dwayne Romero, who is currently reviewing the Lodge At Aspen Mountain and will be reviewing Lift One Lodge, said change on the 1A side of Ajax is necessary.”It activates an unactivated area,” he said.
The Mine Dumps, the Holland House and the Skiers Chalet Steakhouse all sit empty today. The Skiers Chalet Lodge is currently occupied by Aspen Music Festival students. During their heyday, these places buzzed with locals and visitors. DePagter remembers her mother bringing coffee to the guests waiting in line at Lift 1. Melville remembers ordering a hamburger at Skiers Chalet Steakhouse and by the time he came around the other side of the restaurant, the burger was ready at the walk-up window.Longtime local Tom Egan said the lunch specials at Skiers Chalet in the 1970s drove him to that side of the mountain. The lunch specials eventually ended, but, like many other locals, Egan still enjoys the empty runs and lack of lift lines on Ajax’s west side.”It’s amazing that a place that is so close to town is so dead,” he said. “Because the races take place on that side of the mountain, I hope the development will really reinvigorate it.”Before he stopped serving lunch in 1983, Wright said he would challenge skiers to the “Tuck for Burgers.””They would call from the Sundeck and order a burger, and if they got to the table faster than I could serve it, it was free,” he said, adding the ski patrol eventually put the kibosh on the challenge. “Some would try to mess with me and order a well-done bacon burger to make it take longer … We had some good times when I was serving lunch.”Wright has mixed feelings about the redevelopment of the place where he’s lived more than half his life.”[The Skiers Chalet] wasn’t meant to stand the test of time, and I kept it together with toothpicks, scotch tape and rubber bands,” he said. “It’s only now that these places have fallen by the wayside.”
He added that he’d like to see the ability to ski down to Dean Street continue, but Wright thinks the Skico and the lodge developers are making a mistake by placing the new chairlift 100 feet uphill from the current 1A bottom terminal.Mayor Mick Ireland started skiing on Ajax’s west side when it was a single chair that ran continuously to the Sundeck. At the end of the day, he remembers skiing into town from the base of 1A. Ireland said he recognizes the importance of South Aspen Street for both its skiing history and its economic potential.”That area of town is well-suited for more lodging uses,” Ireland said. “I would like to see that in reasonable numbers.”DePagter had originally planned to redevelop the Holland House, but in these days of high building costs and guests demanding more high-end facilities, it wasn’t economically feasible.”We were going to get as many rooms as we could,” she said. “Our redevelopment would have been bigger than what’s being proposed simply because of economics … the market has changed, and we would start having to compete with $400 and $500 a night [rooms].”But the family didn’t want to go big.”
DePagter admits to some regrets about the big changes to the place where she grew up, but she likes the plans proposed by Chaffin and Light.”I honestly and sincerely think their project is going to be a good project,” she said. “There’s a lot of sentiment, but I keep reminding people that it was inevitable.”Carolyn Sackariason’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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