Aspen City Council candidates hot, lukewarm and cold to Lift One proposal
February 14, 2019
With the Lift One proposal at the western base of Aspen Mountain going to the electorate March 5, the race for City Council has taken on a different posture than in years past.
For sure, discussions about Aspen's housing crunch and transportation woes still permeate on the campaign trail, but candidates also have gone public with their positions about Lift One, a multifaceted, nuanced proposal for the ski mountain's most historic area but one that also is dilapidated.
On Wednesday at the Aspen Business Luncheon candidate forum, held at Mountain Chalet and moderated by Chris Klug, the four contestants for the two open council seats showed support for the Lift One plan ranging from unwavering to lukewarm, or, in the case of the incumbent, not at all.
One candidate, Rachel Richards, said the Lift One issue has become a litmus test of sorts for voters, similar to the pro-choice/pro-life debate on the national scale.
Candidates Linda Manning, Skippy Mesirow and Richards have lent the support to the project; Councilman Bert Myrin, who is seeking re-election, is against the ballot question in its current form.
The multi-layered question asks voters, in one fell swoop, if they approve a city ordinance that would pave the way for two mountain-slope hotels — the 81-room, 64,000-square-foot Gorsuch Haus and the 104-room, 107,000-square-foot Lift One Lodge — and a $4.36 million taxpayer contribution that would help fund Dean Street improvements and the conversion of the near-dormant Skiers Chalet Lodge into a ski museum. It also includes adding a new lift that would go down to Dean Street and replace Lift 1A.
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Klug asked the candidates to weigh in on their Lift One positions, and Myrin again positioned himself as being firmly opposed to it, while Manning showed the most unyielding advocacy, and Mesirow and Richards cited flaws in the project while verbalizing their support.
Klug, who won the 2002 Winter Olympics bronze medal parallel giant slalom and is now a Realtor, noted that "$4.36 million is coming from city coffers to support the ski museum. Good idea, bad idea?"
Manning, the city clerk, stayed consistent with her position that emphasizes a pro-business side.
"I support the Lift One corridor project and the public-private partnership of $4.36 million," she said. "I think it's more than a ski lift that's going to be the public benefit of that project. It will activate the Dolinsek property (which would be part of the ski corridor); it will be improvements to the street and the pedestrian corridor."
Manning has argued the city could do a better job of supporting Aspen's resort and business community, and she stayed true to that position concerning Lift One.
"It is bringing much-needed lodge rooms to the city," she said. "We are a resort community. We need everything that comes with the resort community. We need the hotel rooms, we need the guests that the hotels will bring, we need the improvements to the Dolinsek property, we need the improvements to the streets and the infrastructure, and the pedestrian amenities. We need all of that. That is the perfect location for this project. If we don't have it at the base of the mountain, where are we going to get it?
"I think this a great project. I think it is the perfect location. I support this project."
Myrin is on the opposite site, and has argued that the proposal sacrifices too much employee housing by reducing Lift One's previous agreement with the city to house 91 workers. That agreement, however, was hatched under a different land-use code, which now requires Gorsuch to provide housing for 21.68 full-time employees, and Lift One to house 45.6 employees, according to the city.
"I suggest voting 'no' on this and sending it back to City Council," Myrin said. "It's a rushed decision on both P&Z's part and City Council's part (putting it on the March ballot)," he said, noting the council opted not to forward the issue to the April ballot in the event of a mayoral or council runoff.
Myrin also said the public money would be better spent on affordable housing.
"Are we building for the higher peaks (the busiest times of the year for tourism) and can we utilize what we have more efficiently?" he asked. "I think we can utilize what we have more efficiently."
Myrin said he would suggest splitting the ballot question into three parts — one for the subsidy, one for rezoning Gorsuch and the final one for Lift One Lodge and the new lift.
Lift One Lodge and relocated new lift would win voter approval, Myrin said, theorizing that the other two would fail at the polls. He also predicted the March ballot question will go down.
Richards conceded the project is not perfect, but it beats the alternate scenario of the Gorsuch team building single-family homes and condominiums in its place, which it has the right to do. Lift One could still be built, but the new ski lift would be jeopardized and, in turn, the future of World Cup ski racing on Aspen Mountain, she said.
"If I had been on the council, I would not have associated that vote (for the $4.36 million) with this election," she said. "I think with that amount of money, they could have had a special election in June and spent more time negotiating with developers to come up with a better proposal."
Even so, Richard said, Aspen over the years has favored improving the Aspen school campus, the Aspen Institute and even the base of Little Nell with the Silver Queen Gondola. She also supports the public money.
"I think the financial commitment is appropriate," she said, likening money the city spent on Durant Street improvements by the gondola as well as Seventh Street to improve pedestrian safety.
Mesirow said he will vote in favor of the project, even though he's not completely satisfied with the proposal, chiefly because he said it falls short on worker housing.
"I will end up voting for the project," he said. "That said … there are things, had I had the opportunity, I would have done significantly differently. Bert talks about full housing mitigation, and I'm with him. I would have been his grounding rock had I been on that council."
Like Myrin, Mesirow also said he doesn't support the developers getting a break from taxpayers.
"City money going into a project, it's going to have $1,000, $1,500 hotel rooms," he said. "That doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I don't think we have a lack of a bed base; I think we have a lack of diversity of a bed base. If there was something that was truly affordable that could attract the next generation of locals, that's something I would consider."
Despite his reservations, Mesirow said a "no" vote isn't in Aspen's best interest.
"Public policy is a choice, and if we vote 'no' on this, what we get is the old version of the Lift One Lodge that's already been entitled and approved and can't be extended," he said. "That goes in right away, and precludes the lift from coming down, it precludes the Dolinsek property, it precludes a lot of the vitality that will come to that area. Gorsuch, we don't know what happens, but as Rachel said, most likely, more empty single-family homes."
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