"Some people create their own storms, then get upset when it rains."
GORSUCH HAUS: AN IMPORTANT UPDATE
In early July last year, I wrote about Gorsuch Haus, the exciting new hotel proposal for the western base of Aspen Mountain, at the top of South Aspen Street, next to Lift 1A. I know you read about it then, but I am updating the status here and am not going to repeat all the factual details. And yeah, this is a deep-dive issue, so settle in. Besides, knowledge is power - be informed! Big decisions on the project are on the horizon, so I suggest a quick refresher (read it again HERE) for good measure. The following is a snapshot of the very basic details:
- 81 keys: 60 hotel rooms, seven 3-bedroom condo suites, plus 6 free market for-sale condos
- 68,000 SF
- Average height is 36.5 feet; 49' high at highest point
- 61 sub-grade parking spaces
- 6 acre parcel; project is on 1 acre
- Replacement for Lift 1A with a high-speed quad
- Plaza area will serve as the portal to the mountain, and will feature a public restaurant, bar and outdoor apres deck, in addition to skier services (lockers, lift tickets restrooms, ski patrol)
- Transit from Rubey Park via year-round complimentary shuttles
- AND, FYI, LIKE IT OR NOT, THE SHIP HAS SAILED: DEVELOPMENT IS COMING TO THE TOP OF SOUTH ASPEN STREET (Let's be smart and approve a project for that space that benefits the entire community and preserves our skiing heritage for the next century!)
There is quite a bit of complexity involved with the next steps for Gorsuch Haus. The project will uniquely provide public space for all comers, not unlike the Hotel Jerome, Limelight and The Little Nell. In addition to adding to the diminished hotel bed base in town, Gorsuch Haus promises to bring the community back to Aspen's historic ski neighborhood -- once the epicenter of vibrancy, skiing, lodging and apres! And don't get drawn into the trap of just looking at Gorsuch Haus as some "new development at the top of South Aspen Street." While Gorsuch Haus is a critical piece in the puzzle of revitalizing the west portal to Aspen Mountain, the entire area must be viewed as a matrix. Other nearby development projects, existing entitlements, city conveyances, conservation easements and the responsibility for revitalizing Aspen's original ski portal are tightly intertwined with the lofty responsibility of honoring Aspen's skiing heritage and ensuring our legacy into the future. Gorsuch Haus is but one cog in this complicated wheel, but it's the pivotal one whose time has come.
TIMELINE & DETAILS
- December 2015: Plans for Gorsuch Haus unveiled
- March 2016: Land use application filed with city of Aspen
- Summer 2016: Changes made to the plans based on initial feedback
- September 2016: P&Z voted 6-0 against, citing height, mass and scale, plus a desire to move the lift terminus to Dean Street (which Gorsuch Haus has no control over)
- December 2016: First Reading of updated plans further incorporating new feedback, City Council voted unanimously 4-0 to proceed to Second Reading despite earlier P&Z decision
- February 13: Second Reading before City Council with public comment (no vote). Gorsuch Haus to request additional guidance from Council as just four votes (Mayor Steve Skadron, Adam Frisch, Bert Myrin and Ann Mullins; Art Daily has recused himself due to conflicts) will eventually determine the outcome
- Future: Amendments to application incorporating direction and feedback from Council; Council vote (could happen as soon as Spring 2017)
HERE are the most recent feedback-based changes to the proposal for Gorsuch Haus. None should surprise you. The local development team (Jeff Gorsuch, Bryan Peterson and Jim DeFrancia,) see you in town, on the mountain, at your kids' events. They're your neighbors and they've been listening. They are uniquely committed to this project as a legacy project for the entire community.
The following are noteworthy challenges facing the project that are currently being addressed by the developer:
- Norway: Revisions since Summer 2016 include a west side 20-25' pullback from Norway and the exciting rumor of a potential "ski tunnel" linking the far skiers' left on Norway to the ski return.
- Height, Mass, Scale: The building itself if 7% smaller and the lot coverage has been reduced 8%. See the neighborhood comps HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. (Important stuff, I swear).
- Lift 1A: The new lift is positioned as far down the property as possible and the alignment provides for possible future extension downhill if neighbors provide access. See a rendering HERE.
- Public Access to 1A: An expanded drop-off circle enables improved transportation, clear sight lines and pedestrian access to the lift from the drop-off on South Aspen Street, in addition to direct-to-lift access off Summit Street, which serves hundreds of condo and hotel units along Monarch, Summit, Mill and Galena. See it HERE.
- Trees: Reduced retaining wall and patio massing on the east side will save 7 of 8 trees next to Caribou Condos.
- Ski Return: The new positioning of the hotel, combined with the alignment of the new Lift 1A, dramatically opens up the "ski return," the historic ski corridor below the ski area boundary, while honoring the historic ski return and mountain view planes. See it HERE.
These are all important concerns that the developer has been working to address -- and the conversations will continue. But there is one hot-button issue that has become the talk of the town and an inexplicable make-it-or-break-it argument despite it being entirely dictated by complicated property ownership issues and entitlements on properties OTHER THAN the Gorsuch Haus parcel:
LIFT ACCESS TO 1A FROM DEAN STREET
HOW DID WE GET HERE? A HISTORY OF RECKLESS DECISIONS
The area is fraught with lift access controversy. But first a little history. Aspen's original lift was actually a "Boat Tow." Built in 1936, the contraption ferried skiers from a terminus near today's Lift 1A up to the top of Corkscrew at Tower Ten Road. Then, on December 14, 1946, Lift 1, a single chair, began carrying skiers from the terminus in Willoughby Park to "midway," at the top of today's Lift 6 (FIS) chair, where it met Lift 2 and went from that spot up to the original octagonal Sundeck. The historic lift terminus and several towers of Lift 1 remain today in the "ski return," which extends below the ski area across what's called Lift One Park and down to City-owned Willoughby Park. These old lift structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the days of Lift 1, skiers skied down the "ski return" to get back to the lift. Incidentally, this path cut across a sliver of Skier's Chalet owner (and former Sundeck manager) Howard Awrey's property. Some skiers stopped to grab a bite at Awrey's ski-up hamburger shack, but Awrey wanted a little compensation from SkiCo for allowing skiers to cross his property. It got hot.
In the end, when the DRC Brown-era SkiCo replaced the old lift for the 1971-72 ski season with today's Lift 1A, the fateful decision was made to move the lift uphill and onto SkiCo land. No more dealing with Awrey. And thus ended lift service upward from Dean Street and ushered in the city's nemesis, a familiar and repeat visitor: the law of unintended consequences.
Take a look at this map that shows the critical property parcels and ownership in the area. Get your bearings. Consider the space we're looking at as a layer cake. From the top down to Dean Street, the parcels include:
- SkiCo-owned land: under contract to Gorsuch Haus
- Lift One Lodge (formerly Holland House and Skiers Chalet)
- Dolinsek Property (future City park)
- Willoughby Park (owned by City of Aspen)
While not literally "stacked" directly on top of one another, the lower three parcels are bisected by the historic transit corridor of the original Lift 1, indicated by the dotted-line outline designated "ski return" above. Many ideas are being kicked around as Dean Street to Lift 1A transit solutions, and frequently mentioned in the context of, "I support Gorsuch Haus, but only as long as there is a lift down as far as Dean Street." Well, here's the skinny. And do keep in mind that pesky concept of property rights; in other words, the legal reasons why you can't build something on your neighbor's property just because you and your friends think it's a damn fine idea.
One can argue that the conundrum started with SkiCo vs Awrey, however, in recent years, the City of Aspen has made numerous bad decisions, including careless approvals of development projects along South Aspen Street and easements that have dramatically and detrimentally affected the potential for future lift service from Dean Street to 1A. None of these decisions are those of Gorsuch Haus; in fact, Gorsuch Haus has neither ownership nor control of the parcels in question below them on the hill, as these belong to other entities.
HOLLAND HOUSE: UNABLE TO REDEVELOP, CLOSES
Established in 1949, and replaced and expanded on its original site in 1956 and again in 1963-1964 by the late Jack and Anneke DePagter, the Holland House operated as a 20-room ski lodge on the east side of South Aspen Street. When a 1992 application for redevelopment revealed the lodge's previously unknown listing on the City's "historic inventory" despite being merely 40 years old, the owners saw ominous signs of the City's heavy hand in preventing the necessary upgrades of local small ski lodges to meet the needs of a more modern clientele. Following a lengthy and costly appeal to Council, in 2003 the Holland House was finally "de-listed" because, while quaint, it was unanimously agreed that the building was indeed not historic. As long-delayed plans for redevelopment began to move forward (including the addition of 8 guest rooms and private baths) the City's writing was still on the wall in the form of bureaucratic hurdles and other burdens. Faced with an uphill battle against the City for permission to make the changes necessary to run a ski lodge in the 21st century based on the priorities set forth in the 2000 Aspen Area Community Plan (and the City's Growth Management Quota System), the owners entertained several offers and eventually sold to developers in 2006.
The City, with its draconian historic preservation restrictions and requirements, as well as bureaucratic encumbrances, effectively forced the owners to sell their family business and with it the potential for the next generation to continue the tradition of hospitality in a beloved small hotel on South Aspen Street. And in so doing, the City succeeded in the elimination of a locally owned and operated (not to mention vibrant and popular) ski lodge. The building was razed in 2007 and the parcel has remained empty ever since.
COWOP FAIL: 2008
Beginning in 2003, amidst the approval of a land use application for a townhome and subsidized housing project on the west side of South Aspen Street, the City hinted that a "ski lodge" is what the community really needed. With its original approvals in hand, the developer put together a proposal that, after much back and forth, emerged as a 150,000 SF project that included said lodge. But in 2007, City Council said no in a 3-2 vote. Imagine encouraging the developers to incur the expense of pursuing this folly at Council's request, only to shoot it down when they delivered!? (The anti-development Bolskeviks on City Council at the time seemed to relish hinting at approvals only to deny applications in the end.)
But the boulevard of broken ski lodge dreams did not end there. The tragedy continued in 2007, when the City again sought to influence the development approval process in the area. Developers of properties on both sides of South Aspen Street suspended their applications to participate in the City's COWOP (meaning "for the convenience and welfare of the public") process. For 6 months in 2008, 28 participants met regularly for literally thousands of hours to come to a community-based consensus on a master plan for development of the neighborhood. Representatives of the two proposed lodges, the SkiCo, the City, neighbors and citizens at large worked tirelessly to devise a plan that passed muster with the group, 19-2 (the group had shrunk to 21 members by the time of the vote). Notably, then-mayor and our pal Mick Ireland voted as a City of Aspen representative FOR the proposal.
Once in front of Council for approval in early 2009, however, Mick's tune changed. Despite 90% of the COWOP membership's approval, Mayor Mick launched into a typical anti-capitalist tirade and cast the deciding vote to kill the COWOP's proposal. (Yes, he voted for it before he voted against it.) The COWOP was then scrapped, and property owners and developers proceeded on their own. But recall, 2009 was smack dab in the middle of the economic downturn, which has kept the entire neighborhood in an undeveloped state of flux (not to mention looking much like a third world country) for the better part of the past decade.
If nothing else, the COWOP established the fervent public sentiment for lift service from Dean Street. But did the City listen? Or care?
CITY PURCHASE OF DOLINSEK PROPERTY
In 2014, the City of Aspen purchased the Dolinsek property for $2.5 million. The half-acre parcel, owned by a long-time Aspen family whose members were integral to the development of Aspen's first ski runs, is located between the city-owned Willoughby and Lift One parks. Terms of the transaction ensure that the property will forever remain open space, creating a contiguous green space from Dean Street up to Lift 1A (the "ski return"). Valued at over $5 million, the property was sold at a discount to the City for use as a park, and includes a life estate for John and Josephine Dolinsek, siblings who have lived their entire lives there and may now do so for the remainder of their days. According to the Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT), "As a condition of closing, the Dolinseks requested that AVLT accept a conservation easement over the property in order to ensure that, once they are gone, it will never be used for anything but a public park and open space."
The scoop: a conservation easement can be appealing to land owners who want to raise funds but don't want to sell out to a developer. Instead, they can sell conservation easements at a lower price than they could sell the land. A land trust or open space program will oversee the binding terms whereby the land owner can then continue to live on his land, but development potential is forever restricted, if not eliminated. The landowner receives a state tax credit for accepting less than full value for the land. These tax credits can be sold, or can be used to reduce property tax bills. There is also a federal tax deduction.
The Dolinsek property was a monumental land acquisition opportunity for the City to be sure, and the 2014 City Council was mighty pleased with themselves for getting it done with your public dollars. But the devil is always in the details. And it would appear that the Dolinseks, through exemplary generosity on one hand, also got the last word when it comes to lift access down to Dean Street. The deed of the Dolinsek deal (obtained by The Red Ant), IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS states:
"Commercial ski lifts and ski area infrastructure (including ski lifts, ski lift towers, overhead cables) are specifically prohibited on or over the property, though Grantor may provide the right to the public to ski across the property during the winter." Knowing what this would do to the historic transit corridor and all future hopes for a lift upward from Dean Street, one can only wonder who at the City knew of this crippling restriction and did the deal with this stipulation anyway? What was the Dolinseks' beef with lift access? Did anyone even think to ask them?
LIFT ONE LODGE
Formerly the site of the beloved Holland House and Skiers Chalet Lodge and Steakhouse, the Lift One Lodge property most recently changed hands in 2015 for $22 million. Development plans for 22 fractional ownership units (84 total keys), five free market units and a 163-space underground garage were approved by Council in 2016. (The old Skier Chalet Lodge will be relocated to Willoughby Park for use as a ski museum, and the Skiers Chalet Steakhouse will be converted to subsidized housing.) Despite being 54' high at its highest point, P&Z unanimously approved the 77,000 SF lodge plans and Council declined to call it up for further review, approving the plans for what is rumored to become a Four Seasons Residence Club or Soho House (both are private clubs). The Lift One Lodge approvals additionally extend the building envelope 15' westward into South Aspen Street, an exchange with the City for allowing 50 displaced parking spaces to be relocated into the project's garage. Gilbert Street (from Monarch Street on the east) was also conveyed as a pedestrian walkway and utility easement, and the ONLY thing that can cross this easement is a Poma lift, specifically and exclusively. As a result, whether Council was aware of this or not (and they didn't ask), the current density and footprint approvals for Lift One Lodge impede the possibility for a surface lift AND ski return through the remaining historic transit corridor.
This rendering shows the currently proposed alignment of the replacement for Lift 1A, as well as the alignment for a possible future extension down to Dean Street in the "ski return." Note the "conflict" with the current Lift One Lodge building footprint.
The City of Aspen's negligence in recent years in not requiring that the historic transit corridor be maintained for future lift service is specifically why there is no straightforward solution to the Dean Street to 1A transit issue. The City has willingly granted conveyances and approvals to various adjacent parcels with no mindful consideration or valuation of the historic Lift 1A transit corridor, the vital role lift service plays not only in the neighborhood but for the community at large, and its own leadership role in preserving and maintaining both the heritage and future of Aspen, a ski town.
DEAN ST TO LIFT 1A: WHAT'S POSSIBLE, WHAT'S NOT?
Years after the 2008 COWOP debacle, one issue remains: the community's desire for lift service to 1A originating at Dean Street.
In the intervening years, however, this broadly supported public sentiment was all but ignored amidst land use decisions by the City of Aspen that now stand to prevent any such skier transit. Here are several of the "what ifs" that people are talking about:
PLATTER PULL / POMA / SURFACE LIFT
Sadly, this is a non-starter. While the thought of a skinny wire with a bunch of hooks seems low impact and relatively easy to implement, it is not to be. While the Colorado Tramway Commission WOULD ALLOW a Poma surface lift in this space, it could only be used for hauling people up and only during winter months -- there isn't requisite space to provide both uphill transport AND to simultaneously allow folks to ski down the "ski return." Furthermore, SkiCo would ostensibly own and operate this lift, and maintain the surface that it would operate upon, necessitating critical snow-making and grooming operations in a space deemed too narrow, constrained and, in several sections, on private land owned by other (disinterested) interests. On a one-dimensional basis (such as a bird's eye view), it looks like this should be imminently do-able. That is, until you check out the property lines and read the fine print of the City's deals.
FUTURE CHAIR OR "SKITTLES" GONDOLA
The Dolinsek Property restrictions (no infrastructure on or above) and the Lift One Lodge easement for a "Poma Only" effectively put the nails in the coffins of both a chair or a gondola from Dean Street.
HORIZONTAL ELEVATOR / FUNICULAR
An additional concept has been discussed, featuring a "horizontal elevator" that would move up and down along a track. Once again, the same restrictions that prevent a chair or gondola to cross the Dolinsek parcel and through the Lift One Lodge property prevent a funicular as well. Furthermore, Lift One Lodge principals have vetoed this idea.
RUBBER TIRE SOLUTION
A free public shuttle that would run exclusively up and down South Aspen Street, with the sole purpose of ferrying people up to the ski area portal at Gorsuch Haus and to the 1A lift is nobody's first choice. And it never should have come to this. But given the City's past decisions that hinder if not entirely prevent lift service from Dean Street, it IS an option that can and will work. No easements, no restrictions, no problem. Besides, every ski portal in Aspen is serviced by some form of mass transit or skier shuttle. Not only is this the commonly used means of accessing our lifts, it is arguably preferred. We all manage quite well with the RFTA buses, Crosstown Shuttle, Galena Street Shuttle, Downtowner and other "rubber tire" solutions shared by pedestrians and skiers alike all over town. It IS do-able. And very convenient. HERE is the proposed shuttle map.
REVISED 1A ALIGNMENT AND IMPROVED SKI RETURN
SkiCo has committed to replacing Lift 1A with a high-speed detachable quad chair if Gorsuch Haus is approved. This replacement is from the current elevation of Lift 1A upward. Gorsuch Haus' plans and alignment for the replacement of 1A fully allow for a downhill extension of the lift in the future, should circumstances change, but do note, such circumstances and changes are on other people's and entities' properties, not the Gorsuch Haus property. Folks, there is no good reason to encumber the Gorsuch Haus proposal with the responsibility for building something on other peoples' land!
Notably, the Gorsuch Haus proposal presents significant improvements that open up and restore the historic "ski return." See it HERE.
THE STATUS QUO: NOT AN OPTION
Like it or not, change is coming to the top of South Aspen Street. This train has left the station. When the 2008 COWOP failed, those against any future development of Aspen's historic ski portal got a reprieve. But it is not to last. It is exceedingly rare that we have another chance to properly develop this historic neighborhood. There is only one option that ensures public access to the mountain into perpetuity, Gorsuch Haus. This opportunity WILL NOT come around a third time.
The Red Ant has determined that there are basically three options for the property, and one WILL happen in some form or another:
- Gorsuch Haus (PUBLIC access/amenities/replacement for Lift 1A)
- 4 private single-family "monster mansions" (Look at South Mill Street to get a feel for how that will look and work)
- Another operator in some variation of the space, perhaps even Lift One Lodge, with an even larger "campus" (Consider the implications of a private membership residence club and how this will affect public access to the lift)
GORSUCH HAUS AND LIFT 1A
There is A LOT of good to this proposal, not the least of which is that it keeps the west side of Aspen Mountain publicly accessible. It is certainly as good as anything we've seen, and I personally think it's better, given what's already in the works! Don't believe for one minute the nay-sayers who are trying to convince you that Gorsuch Haus is "in the middle of a ski run." You have the maps -- and the facts -- to know otherwise.
When you see what is already approved for the east and west sides of South Aspen Street, I get it, you cringe at the density up there and question why a 68,000 SF hotel needs to go in at the top. In short, Gorsuch Haus needs to go there so that we all can too!! We can grab a beer, have lunch, meet friends, enjoy apres, and basically hang out. If it's just a private residence club or single family homes, guess again. And what happens to Lift 1A in the long run won't be pretty either.
Developer Bryan Peterson wrote in a recent letter to the editor, "If the lift had remained near Dean Street 45 years ago, no doubt there would be a fully developed in-town ski base. Gorsuch Haus can't undo decisions of 40 years ago, but we can move forward and appropriately reactivate the only other portal to Aspen Mountain."
SkiCo president and CEO Mike Kaplan has stressed how critical the company believes Gorsuch Haus to be to the community. "The redevelopment of the South Aspen Street neighborhood is important to the town of Aspen and the future of Aspen Mountain," he said. "As we have long said, the revitalization of this area is a necessary step to the replacement of Lift 1A, and we look forward to a South Aspen Street neighborhood with new hotel and lodge projects, condominiums, restaurants and retail spaces such as Gorsuch Haus."
The Red Ant is 100% all-in for Gorsuch Haus. Join me in convincing City Council that Gorsuch Haus is a winner: for our heritage, for our future, for our community, and especially for Aspen -- the ski town.
WHAT YOU CAN DO / HOW YOU CAN HELP
KNOW the facts. Forward this email to your friends today. There are real and distinct reasons why Gorsuch Haus cannot promise lift access from Dean Street. Now you know why. As much as Gorsuch Haus would LOVE lift service from Dean Street to the relocated Lift 1A, this decision is ENTIRELY incumbent upon other property owners in the neighborhood AND the City of Aspen.
Let's get the fingers pointed in the right direction and the pressure applied accordingly. With decisions comes accountability, and the City can and should make this right. It makes sense that Lift One Lodge doesn't want to renegotiate now because they have their entitlements in hand. The City CAN make a deal with them though. Of course they can. Incentives, baby. Give it a try. Offer them something that doesn't risk their existing approvals and let's see if there might be a solution! AsThe Aspen Times' Andy Stone best put it, "And what's blocking this great leap forward for Aspen as a great ski town? Lift One Lodge, foolishly approved (but fortunately not yet built) right smack in the way of that lift." And if the Dolinsek parcel is a no-way, no-how proposition (Is it? Can the City and AVLT renegotiate just the "lift cable above" restriction for that tiny sliver of soon-to-be City property purchased with public funds?), then shame on council for their naive and short-sighted approval of that deal. It won't be easy, and eating crow sure isn't pretty, but the city CAN make amends for its own myopic and damning decisions that have created this conundrum. The outcome will be squarely on the shoulders of Councilmembers Skadron, Frisch, Mullins and Myrin. Forever. It's time to do the right thing.
PLEASE SUPPORT GORSUCH HAUS!!
- Sign up as a supporter HERE (no, you do not have to be a local voter)
- Write to City Council in support: steve.skadron, adam.frisch, bert.myrin, ann.mullins -- all @cityofaspen.com
- Write to the papers in support: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
- Talk the project up! You now know the facts, and word of mouth matters!
- Link to THIS issue of The Red Ant on your Facebook page.
- Specifically address the "lift to Dean Street issue" now that you know what's going on!
- COME TO THE COUNCIL MEETING ON MONDAY, FEBRUARY 13 AND VOICE YOUR SUPPORT FOR GORSUCH HAUS!!!! Be prepared to make a VERY brief statement (less than 3 minutes) with VERY specific reasons for your support.
And just for fun, get in the mood by checking out Aspen Journalism's fabulous and comprehensive timeline of Aspen's skiing history, including wonderful photos from the Lift 1 days. We must never forget our skiing heritage!!