Will the hotel building boom bust Aspen’s character?
October 18, 2005
The first new hotel to open in Aspen in more than a decade is expected to welcome guests by Christmastime. But it won’t take another 10 years before the next new hotel follows on the heels of the Hyatt Grand Aspen’s scheduled opening. Or the hotel after that.New Aspen lodging projects are lined up like limos outside the Oscars. The next is already under construction alongside the lower ski slopes of Aspen Mountain, two more have been approved by the City Council and a third is seeking a conceptual go-ahead. Three of Aspen’s oldest ski lodges are also poised for redevelopment, another was recently rebuilt and yet another is in the midst of reconstruction. The owners of the Sky Hotel have also submitted plans to raze and replace that structure.Resort officials who have long decried Aspen’s slow decline in available guest rooms are lauding the hotel boom. But as new, large buildings spring up along Durant Avenue, some locals will invariably cringe. It’s a nebulous line between iconic ski town and what’s commonly referred to in these parts as, well, Vail. “There’s a funny irony in that, sometimes you need to change in order to stay the same,” said City Councilwoman Rachel Richards.Richards reasons that a remake of the town’s bed base is vital to its future as a ski resort. Otherwise, Aspen threatens to slide into a second-home/retirement community.That’s not to say the changes don’t feel fast and furious these days.”It’s certainly the most I’ve ever seen,” Richards conceded.The City Council has unanimously agreed that new hotel development belongs at the base of Aspen Mountain, within walking distance to both the slopes and downtown shops and restaurants, but what’s springing up is a far cry from the quaint lodges that marked Aspen’s debut as a tourist destination more than a half-century ago.
By the time several projects currently proposed or under construction are completed, a “wall” of large hotel buildings will stretch from the Sky Hotel, just east of Little Nell ski run, clear to Shadow Mountain.”The bed base in Aspen seems to be reacting to the market – it’s reacting to what consumers want,” said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a local reservations agency. “It’s all based on consumer demand. That’s what’s really changing.”For starters, most of the proposed new hotels are entirely or partially “timeshare” projects of one kind or another. Buyers will own a share of a suite and schedule times to use it, though the accommodations will be available to walk-up guests whenever they’re not occupied.And, instead of cramped, antiquated rooms, the new crop of hotels will offer spacious quarters and amenities like wireless Internet and fitness/spa facilities. Most won’t fit the definition of “moderately priced,” either.What will happen to the look and feel of Aspen, if and when large hotels line the southern edge of the downtown, from the luxury Little Nell at the gondola plaza to the Lift 1A neighborhood at the base of Shadow Mountain, is a matter of opinion.
“There is a difference between modernization and transformation, and I think what we’re seeing in Aspen is modernization – badly needed,” Tomcich contends. “As a citizen, what impresses me a great deal about this town is how little we’ve changed, compared to other resort towns. You ride up Lift 1A and look over your shoulder – Aspen is still Aspen.”But if you stand on Durant Avenue and look at Aspen Mountain from the Rubey Park bus station, you’re likely to notice the prominent – some would say pompous – Hyatt Grand Aspen, speeding toward completion. What used to stand there, the old Grand Aspen Hotel, at one time known as the Continental Inn, is but a hazy memory.”I’ve had people give me a hard time about the Grand Aspen,” admits Scott Writer, one of the hotel’s developers. “My response is, would you rather have the Continental Inn sitting there? The Continental was pretty much an old dump.”Everybody’s entitled to their opinion – many people may say ‘the old dump.’ My take is, it’s a tourist facility whether you like it or not,” Writer said. “Why should it be the old piece of crap?”Hot about hotelsResistance to change is nothing new in Aspen, but big new hotels have long been a source of angst. Perhaps nothing both signals and reflects the shifting nature of the resort quite like the evolution of its accommodations.One could point to the expansion of the historic Jerome Hotel in the mid-1980s, with a new wing that replaced what had been the town swimming pool, as one of the first dints in Aspen’s character delivered in the name of tourist accommodations.Around the same time, The Little Nell, Aspen’s first “big” luxury hotel (it has 92 rooms) replaced a legendary restaurant/bar and après-ski deck that existed at the base of the ski run of the same name. Less than a decade later, the even-larger Ritz-Carlton (now the St. Regis Aspen) easily eclipsed the scale of the Little Nell. Both were controversial at the time. Now, they’re part of the landscape.
“I’m sure every change that has ever come down the pike has been disconcerting to anyone who was there before,” Richards said.With each change, Aspen grapples with its vision for the future.Chris Bendon, the city’s head planner, likens a community to a living organism – it continually grows and evolves, or it dies from stagnation.”If we get too focused on what we were, there’s a potential to get stuck in time,” Bendon said. “I think there’s a risk. At some point, funky becomes crappy. That’s not something we define. That’s something the people coming here will figure out on their own.”The redevelopment of Aspen’s lodging comes as some old accommodations slide beyond quaint. They no longer meet guest expectations, making their continued viability difficult.Furthermore, the sheer number of lodging accommodations has been on a long decline. The city estimates its “pillow count” – literally the number of pillows where guests can lay their heads – has dropped from close to 10,000 in 1994-95 to 7,300 currently. During that same period, the number of lodging properties dropped from 73 to 48, as many were converted to residential use.Balancing actFor the City Council, the challenge is balancing the desire for more tourist beds near the mountain with the community’s aesthetic – what fits and what doesn’t. Council members, like their constituents, don’t necessarily agree.”It’s how you grow, not that you do grow,” Mayor Helen Klanderud contends.
But each new, big building between Aspen and its mountain is scrutinized.”When you put a bunch of buildings in front of your feature attraction, I think you’re missing the point,” said Jasmine Tygre, chairwoman of Aspen’s Planning and Zoning Commission and a frequent dissenter when the P&Z votes on big new developments. “I do not buy the argument that you should go stand in the middle of the street so you can see the mountain.”Tygre, a longtime Aspenite, remembers when the Little Nell ski run came down to Hunter Street, literally connecting the mountain to town. That was before the base of the ski area was pushed up a flight of stairs to the bottom terminus of the Silver Queen Gondola.”I thought it gave the town a sort of presence,” she said.”If I were on the God squad, the mountain would come right into town – with snow, not steps,” said City Councilman Jack Johnson, who has only seen photographs of how things used to be. “It was clear the mountain came down to the street. It seemed, you could have skied onto Hunter Street.”Increasingly, large buildings create a barrier between the town and the mountain. Views of the slopes require looking up, at least as one gets closer to the slopes, but that’s not to say one can’t see it. Aspen Mountain’s vertical rise is 3,267 feet, as opposed to the 45-foot tall Grand Aspen Hyatt, for example.The Hyatt is front and center from the vantage point of the Rubey Park bus station, but from points farther south, Aspen Mountain is the focal point it has always been, Klanderud noted.”From a block away, you are completely aware of what this town is all about,” Johnson agreed.
‘They’re not Vail’While the 50-unit Hyatt nears completion, construction of The Residences at Little Nell has just begun. The $300 million, slopeside, private residence club is taking shape to the skier’s left of Little Nell. Its 24 fractional suites, eight luxury lodge rooms and two residences are targeted to open in the first half of 2007.Three blocks to the west, a pair of boutique hotels – the Dancing Bear and ChartHouse Lodge – have both been approved. The ChartHouse will offer 11 fractional suites, replacing a vacant restaurant building. Across the street, the Dancing Bear will contain nine fractional suites, replacing the long vacant and decrepit Aspen Manor lodge. Demolition of the latter could come before the year is out.”I think the Dancing Bear and ChartHouse will both be definite improvements over what is there,” said David Brown, architect for both projects.Both buildings will have partial fourth floors that inch above the 46-foot mark, far higher than the existing, low-slung buildings they will replace. But neither structure – nor the other hotel projects around town – clash with the town’s character and scale, believes Jim DeFrancia, one of the ChartHouse Lodge’s developers.”I truly don’t find any of them to be offensively large,” he said. “They’re different and perhaps larger than those properties they’re replacing, but they absolutely are not Vail. They’re not high-rises, they’re not mega-buildings.”But Don Gilbert, an Aspen condo owner who would see the biggest of Aspen’s proposed new hotels out his window, offered a different perspective in urging the City Council to reject the planned Lodge at Aspen Mountain on South Aspen Street.”If Aspen continues on this path, I think it will be only a matter of time before people begin to wonder, ‘If it’s going to look like Vail, why not just save the trouble and go to Vail?’ ” Gilbert, a New York resident, wrote in a letter to the council.
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With a proposed 85 hotel rooms, 22 fractional suites, four free-market residences and 12 worker housing units in its most recent iteration, the hotel measured about 185,400 square feet of above-ground space – roughly comparable to the St. Regis – and was about 65 feet high at the chimneys.Developers were sent back to the drawing board to scale it back; a revised conceptual plan is back before the council on Oct. 24.The scaffolding that has been erected on the site to give neighbors and council members a sense of the Lodge at Aspen Mountain’s proposed height is visible from Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss’ condo at Centennial, across town.”It gives you a concept of just what they’re asking for. You know, it’s a beautiful building, but it’s just too big, too high,” DeVilbiss said, reiterating his stance during the council’s last review of the hotel plan.DeVilbiss cast the sole vote against the ChartHouse Lodge in August, saying at the time, “I’m concerned about the cumulative effect of buildings that are tall.”He also cast the only “no” vote against a conceptual plan to redevelop the Limelite Lodge, though other council members hinted they want to see changes to the project’s height when it comes back for final review.”It’s always a hard call – with each step forward, is it a disaster or is it in balance?” Klanderud said. “Elected officials have the opportunity and the responsibility to make those calls.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org