Decision time for hotel project
ASPEN The new Aspen City Council is due to vote Monday on its first major development proposal one that has become as controversial as it has political over the past four years. If the council approves it, the Lodge at Aspen Mountain – proposed for the base of Lift 1A – will be the first hotel built in Aspen in 20 years. It’s also the largest commercial development Aspen has seen since the construction of the Ritz-Carlton – now the St. Regis – nearly two decades ago. Political lines have been drawn in the community over the Lodge at Aspen Mountain, an 80-room hotel, 175,000-square-foot property Centurion Partners proposed for South Aspen Street. With a decision likely at a public hearing Monday, The Aspen Times has received more than a dozen letters to the editor over the past week. There appears to be as much opposition to the project on the opinion pages as there is support.But John Sarpa, a principal at Centurion, believes the backing of some prominent organizations and individuals says volumes about the proposal. He estimates that there are more supporters of the project than opponents, saying area homeowner organizations are behind the project.”It’s a minuscule amount [of opposition],” he said. “There are 100 people who live up there, and five or 10 speak out against it. I know we are in the 90th percentile [of support].”Sarpa is relying on key supporters, like the Aspen Skiing Co., the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and neighbors of the project, to make one last sales pitch to City Council on Monday. Based on previous comments, supporters likely will say the lodge will provide much-needed hotel rooms in a resort that has lost thousands of rental rooms over the past decade. City staff acknowledged that point in its memo to the City Council, saying lodging should be close to the mountain, the downtown core and transit opportunities. Staff also commended the project for “an exemplary project primarily for its energy conservation plan” and recommended approval of the project.Some will argue that the hotel is better than the 14 townhomes that Centurion already has approval for and will build if the council shoots down the hotel. Others will make the case that the hotel will revitalize a part of town that has lost its vitality and provides many community amenities, such as a new high-speed quad chairlift on Ajax’s west side, as well as snowmelt system on a steep South Aspen Street.The project’s foes – possibly a silent majority in the community – are expected to come out in full force as well, arguing that the hotel is too massive for the neighborhood and doesn’t provide enough hotel rooms for its size. “There are many, many people in town who do not wish to see such a gigantic facility erected,” Aspen residents Anne and Clarence Blackwell wrote in a July 10 letter to Mayor Mick Ireland. Ireland said in July that the development would be equivalent in size to 11 Pitkin County Courthouses. Sarpa said it’s more like seven courthouses, based on floor area ratios. Regardless, the Lodge at Aspen Mountain is about 15,000 less square feet than the St. Regis. Comparatively, the Hotel Jerome is 113,561 square feet and the Lime Lite Lodge will be 155,000 square feet when complete.City Council members have been critical of the number of affordable housing units the developers are offering. At the nost recent City Council meeting, Sarpa and his partners offered to house about 60 percent of its employees, which is what the city code requires. At the July 30 council meeting, Centurion guaranteed it will employ 190 people and house the equivalent of 127.75 employees.But Monday, Sarpa and his partners are upping the ante on a number of fronts, including the affordable housing allotment. They propose housing 138 employees, which represents 87.6 percent housed, according to city staff’s interpretation of the land-use code. Sarpa estimates that the number of employees housed is 72.6 percent of its total work force.Centurion also will agree to an audit on the number of people it employs, since some City Council members felt the developers were low-balling how many employees it would take to run a hotel of that size in order to house fewer individuals.In response to the City Council’s concerns, Centurion also guarantees that it will offset 100 percent of the emissions from the snowmelt system on South Aspen Street. City Council criticized the proposal for not offering enough community benefits, saying it needs to be more inclusive. In response, Centurion will propose a 20 percent discount on the hotel’s services – such as bar and food bills, and spa services – for every Aspen resident.”We tried to come up with something meaningful and we think this is meaningful,” Sarpa said.Other community benefits would include 254 underground public parking spaces, 50 of which are public; wider sidewalks on South Aspen Street from the new lift to Durant Avenue; and shuttle service from the gondola to the mountain’s west side, among other offerings.The project also includes 21 fractional-lodging units, four whole-ownership units, nearly 4,000 square feet of meeting space, a swimming pool and a restaurant.The project has changed considerably since the first proposal four years ago, based on feedback from area residents, the Planning and Zoning Commission, and past city councils and the current one, which has reviewed it for the past two months.Developers sweetened the pot at the last public hearing by deed-restricting the hotel rooms for 99 years. That means the rooms couldn’t be converted into fractional-ownership units or condos during that period.The City Council is stuck between a rock and a hard place in a certain sense because if it denies the development application, Centurion Partners will go ahead and build 14 townhomes and 17 affordable-housing units on 2.4 acres. Centurion has started its plans to tear down the old Mine Dumps apartments on South Aspen Street and is preparing the site for 84,000 square feet of residential development.The other option, if the council denies the hotel proposal, would be to take it to a referendum and let the voters decide. Developers haven’t said whether they would go that route if they are denied, but they are considering it.City Attorney John Worcester said it’s possible to take the proposal to the voters, but until he sees an ordinance, he can’t comment on the merits of a referendum.The Ritz Carlton generated substantive controversy in the community and was subsequently taken to the voters, which ultimately won approval.The City Council meeting begins at 5 p.m. in council chambers, in the basement of City Hall.Carolyn Sackariason’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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