The City Council must interpret history in Bavarian brouhaha |

The City Council must interpret history in Bavarian brouhaha

Aspen’s elected leaders faced a tough decision this week, and they handled it like professional politicians usually do – they put it off.

The decision concerns the Bavarian Inn redevelopment into deed-restricted affordable housing. The old inn, owned by Savanah Limited Partnership, has for several years been used to house local workers, although it has been reserved for Savanah employees.

Now, the company wants to convert the existing inn and build several more structures to meet its “housing mitigation” requirements associated with Savanah’s development plans.

This is a normal part of being a developer in Aspen. All developers must provide a certain amount of housing for the workers generated by the development.

But Savanah is in a unique position. The company built the former Ritz Carlton Aspen (now the St. Regis Hotel) in the early part of this decade, owns the Aspen Meadows and operates it in partnership with the Aspen Skiing Co., and now is gearing up to redevelop the old Grand Aspen Hotel and build luxury housing at the Top of Mill project at the base of Aspen Mountain.

It would be difficult to say how many employees there are in Aspen today as a direct result of Savanah’s work, but it’s a safe bet the number is a big one. The St. Regis alone employs hundreds, and although it is no longer owned by Savanah, it is the Ritz/St. Regis continuum with which the Bavarian Inn issue is concerned.

Back in 1990, when Savanah and its then-owner, Mohamed Hadid, were engaged in an expensive election campaign to win voter support for the Ritz, the name of the Bavarian Inn was raised repeatedly.

In advertisements, in statements made to reporters by Savanah representatives, even in the ballot question that ultimately received the voters’ endorsement – the Bavarian Inn was very much a part of the fight. And the part the old inn played was similar to that of cheese in a mousetrap – Savanah was dangling the prospect of up to 90 units of affordable housing at the Bavarian as an enticement for voter support of the proposed Ritz.

Savanah representatives reject this interpretation of history today, because it is not in line with their corporate designs. They say the housing-mitigation requirements associated with the Ritz were taken care of long ago, that they mentioned the Bavarian only as a fallback in case additional housing was needed, and that they now want the Bavarian to count against their responsibilities regarding the Grand Aspen.

But there are members of the City Council, as well as many citizens, who were here during the 1990 election campaign, and they remember what was said and what was implied and what was meant. And their memory is that the Bavarian was used as bait, purely and simply.

Savanah spokesman John Sarpa, who is quick to note that he was there, too, and remembers the circumstances and the statements, will go before the City Council in early December to make his pitch for the company. His position, as seen in statements made so far, is basically that Savanah never made any specific promises to build the Bavarian as mitigation for the Ritz. He has already made a thinly veiled threat of possible legal action over the matter, and averred that a judge would take his side in a lawsuit.

But another interpretation is that Savanah and Sarpa made their remarks back in 1990, dangled the Bavarian in front of a populace desperate for affordable housing, specifically in such a way that would allow them to make this argument today. With carefully selected wording, coached by attorneys and public relations experts, they may have been hoping to walk a thin line between truth and lies, and both win the electorate’s endorsement for the Ritz and still be able to get away with not building the Bavarian project until it suited their needs.

Which reading of history is the true one? It will be up to the City Council to decide.

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