Guest column: The balance between resort and town |

Guest column: The balance between resort and town

Bill Stirling
Guest column

It occurred to me recently that the crux of almost every important decision at the Aspen City Council table since the political transformation in the 1970s has turned on the delicate balancing act of two key forces: the town and the resort. Acknowledging, respecting and paying homage to the town-and-resort tug of war has been at the heart of virtually every important city of Aspen discussion since the early 1980s. These two concepts are dependent on each other. They go hand in glove. They are symbiotic. When too much emphasis is placed on either the town or the resort, things can get out of whack.

What brought you to Aspen? Was it the essence of the Aspen Idea, which is the integration of the mind, body and spirit, which we all strive for in this beautiful, natural setting to become a complete and whole person? The Aspen Idea is often thought to be the software of our resort/town. The following are many of the essential ingredients of what defines the resort concept: the Aspen Institute and the world of ideas, the classical Aspen Music Festival and School, the gathering of Nobel laureates at the Aspen Center for Physics, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Aspen Words, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the Aspen Global Change Institute, the Aspen Repertory Theater, KJAX, downhill skiing, walking, biking and cross-country trails, backcountry hut trips, hiking, climbing, golf, tennis, kayaking, biking, shopping, fine dining and condo and hotel lodging.

Or was it the town that brought you here? The town is made up of many things, including but limited to: diverse neighborhoods; the affordable-housing program; the elected officials’ active role in shaping the town, e.g., the Growth Management Plan and the Aspen Area Community Plan; the ongoing efforts to protect the “last, great, good places,” aka community (such as City Market, the Sundeck, the post office, the J-Bar, Little Annie’s, Explore Booksellers, the Limelight Hotel lobby, the Aspen Recreation Center, etc.); the open space program; the views; the small-town feeling; the Victorian preservation program; the AspenModern architectural program; the public and private schools; the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies; Aspen Valley Hospital; the Community Office for Resource Efficiency; the urban forest; the seasonal irrigation ditches; the Roaring Fork Transit Authority and so much more.

I would venture to say that you were drawn to Aspen by a combination of both phenomena. You cannot have a great resort without the myriad resort amenities. How much is enough? When is it too much? At what point do the benefits of the resort infringe on the town? Or vice versa? Dick Farson of the now-defunct International Design Conference in Aspen always said, “The greatest places to live are also the greatest places to visit.” There are few resort towns as inviting as Aspen to make one’s home.

When I was serving as mayor in 1983, I was hit head-on with this town-versus-resort dilemma. The proposed Little Nell Hotel was aiming to go one-quarter of the way up the Little Nell ski slope, and the ski company wanted approval for almost 200 rooms. In my view, that was an example of the resort run amok. However, the compromise reached by the council is a hotel with fewer than 100 rooms built on grade with Durant Street and in keeping with the town/resort balance. Various variances were granted by our council. Nonetheless, many residents were furious that we had stopped the bigger proposed hotel, as it was for them the panacea to get us out of the worldwide recession in the early ’80s. Political leaders have to be brave and take stands. The Little Nell Hotel is one of two five-star hotels in the entire state of Colorado.

When the Burlingame affordable project was proposed, there was much support and resistance to it in light of the pressure it would place on so many city services and its proposed scope and scale. It also was viewed by many as urban sprawl. There were fears that the town aspect was getting out of control. When might there be too much affordable housing? However, the Burlingame ballot issue was passed by the people, planned in stages and carefully sited behind Deer Hill so as not to be too visible from the highway. It has become the single largest affordable-housing project in Aspen. All the efforts to address siting and size began to make Aspenites feel more comfortable with the scope and scale of the project.

Recently I have observed a series of events that have brought the town-and-resort balancing act into sharp focus. For example: the upcoming vote on the proposed Base2 project, the passage of Referendum 1 in May and a recent council decision to no longer pursue a hotel complex on the west side of Aspen Street at the base of Lift One. In my view, the compilation of these events is an example of when the town starts to hold sway over the resort.

I would observe that Referendum 1 holds representative democracy hostage and shifts to a different kind of government dictated by referendums and special elections. The opposition wants elected officials’ hands to be tied and for there to be no variances allowed regarding height, mass, affordable housing and parking.

Many of the town enthusiasts would argue the town was in jeopardy and was being dramatically altered. They believed that the resort was gobbling up the town and in bed with the City Council. Of which City Council are they speaking — the one that voted down the Lift One hotel complex on Aspen Street and approved in its place a dozen giant, luxury condo townhouses? Or was it the City Council that made the bargain with other developers suing the city that brought the new Aspen Art Museum into town and later lowered the height in certain downtown zones from 42 to 28 feet? Or is it the current City Council, which recently passed a developer’s proposal for affordable tourist accommodations on an application submitted at the end of 2014, six months before Referendum 1 was passed? I hardly see the current City Council as any more generous with developers than previous city councils.

The Base2 election epitomizes the tension between the town and the resort. The resort is in jeopardy at the moment. The Base2 developer was asked by the Community Development Department to consider building affordable tourist accommodations. It was not his choice. He was responding to what he perceived as a community need. Aspen has been asking for affordable tourist rooms for decades. We finally get them, as crafted carefully by the developer and the council working together, and many residents still squawk.

Yes, some allowances were granted by the council in the approval process this summer. Though the bulk and mass are larger than the underlying zoning, the bulk and mass allowed for Base2 would be the same as the zoning catty-corner from Base2, where the Matsuhisa restaurant is located. It is clear that its bulk and mass are far less than the historic Hotel Jerome, only one block to the east. Main Street is already lined with small hotels and lodges. Its proposed height is below what is allowed in the zone. Also there needs to be a certain reliability for those seeking to develop in Aspen.

To address the issue of pricing for Base2, one does not look at shoulder-season pricing, as Su Lum did in the Sept. 10 issue of the Times. One should look at the midlevel hotels and various other small hotels and lodges during one high-season period. Research online shows the following daily rates for the 2016 Presidents Day weekend (Feb. 12 through 15, four nights minimum): Sky Hotel, $649; Limelight Hotel, $636; Mountain Chalet, $479; Hotel Durant, $340; Hotel Aspen, $284; St. Moritz, $259; and Tyrolean, $205. I understand the proposed rate for this period at Base2 would be around $200 per night. None of these rates includes taxes or other extra fees. What a competitive price this new hotel will be as compared with the older small hotels and lodges. Not only do locals seek bargains, but so will visitors. I also would point out that the size of the rooms would dictate a certain lower pricing. You cannot charge much more than $200 for rooms smaller than 200 square feet. Also, the approval does not allow any of these smaller hotel rooms to be joined to make larger units without the Base2 owner going back to the sitting council for an approval for such a proposed change.

Base2 would give this block a finished look and would join the existing stream of hotels, small hotels and lodges already on Main Street. If Base2 is not built, the developer will go for the highest and best use: first-floor commercial and luxury condos above. We need these two uses like we need a hole in our heads. What the resort needs is fairly priced, well-designed, centrally located hotel units to diversify our bed base.

Stand back and reflect. Approving Base2 is in Aspen’s best long-term interests and would help right the balance in the tug of war between the town and the resort. The community has only been asking for such affordable tourist beds at resident and council meetings for over 40 years. Let’s get our resort town back in sync. We are not called a resort town for nothing.

Bill Stirling is a real estate agent and former mayor of Aspen.