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ISSUE #126: Gorsuch Haus - I'm EnchANTed  7/1/2016

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."  

-- George Orwell

What would summer be in Aspen without a political cause celeb? The summer of 2016 has locals, second-homeowners, conservationists, skiers and our beloved political elites all fired up about Gorsuch Haus, a proposed hotel development at the top of South Aspen Street.  This is an opinion newsletter, obviously, and my opinion is that the impending decisions by Aspen's planning and zoning board and later by council regarding the approval of the Gorsuch Haus project have critical and far-reaching implications for the future of skiing in Aspen.  Yep, I think the decisions on this one are THAT big. 

I've been horrified to read in the papers so many misguided and misinformed letters to the editor in opposition to this critical project that I fired up the computer and picked up the phone during my vacation and learned the facts.  I suggest you learn them too, and then make up your own mind on whether or not you favor the project.  There's a lot of garbage out there.  These 10 "myths" are making the rounds in the lead-up to Gorsuch Haus' day before P&Z on July 5; I will debunk each one:

Myth #1:  Gorsuch Haus is so enormous and over-the-top, it is a big box that will make the 1A base area look like Vail

Gorsuch Haus is a moderate-sized hotel, proposed for the top of South Aspen Street.  The plans for a 68,000 sf structure that will feature 60 hotel rooms, 7 rental condos and 6 owned condos -- a total of 81 "keys" -- is oriented north-south, from about 100' below the current Lift 1A terminus to a point about one quarter of the way up the Norway ski run.  Unlike a "big box" such as The Residences at Little Nell, Gorsuch Haus will "stepped" into the mountainside in two-, three- and four-story levels, never higher than 49'.  Parking is underground.  At the top of the property is a public ski-in/ski-out slope side bar and restaurant. Here's what it will look like:

As a data point, and for comparison, Aspen's only ski-in/ski-out hotel is The Little Nell, at the north easternmost corner of Ajax at the base of Little Nell.  The 65,000 sf hotel has 92 rooms and suites.  Another size comparison - The Hotel Jerome is 85,000 sf and offers 93 rooms.

Myth #2:  Gorsuch Haus will cut off public access to the Lift 1A side of Ajax

The hotel's entrance features a public drop-off area, and the public plaza on the east side features guest services amenities (ticket offices, etc), not to mention the long-awaited replacement for Lift 1A.  (This could be a high-speed quad or gondola - that's up to SkiCo.)  The slope-side, public ski-in/ski-out bar and restaurant will offer skiers another choice for mountainside dining and entertainment, drawing people to this otherwise amenity-free side of the hill.  Here's a look at the approach:

The Red Ant says, this is GREAT.  I regularly ski 1A and what's commonly referred to as "Aspen's 5th mountain" on the west side of Ajax.  A redeveloped base area that features a bar and restaurant (not to mention all the other amenities - retail, restrooms, etc) AND the new lift, would be a fabulous and long-awaited addition to and an enormous improvement over the bleak offerings today.  I love a moderate hotel on this site - it will greatly ENHANCE the sleepy west side and make the area more compelling, relevant and accessible to locals and visitors alike than ever before.

Myth #3:  With the One Aspen townhomes and Lift One Lodge already being built on South Aspen Street, that's enough lodging and development for that side of town

One Aspen is a 77,000 sf complex of 14 privately-owned luxury townhomes and 15 subsidized housing units located on the west side of South Aspen Street, from Juan Street to just below the Shadow Mountain condos.  Lift One Lodge is a 76,000 sf (22 units, 84 keys) timeshare lodge and 5 free market units across from One Aspen on the east side of South Aspen Street.  Lift One Lodge additionally offers 50 underground public parking spaces to make up for the removal of on-street public parking in the area.

These two projects are fabulous additions to the beleaguered neighborhood, long in need of revitalization, even before the 2008 downturn that left the area in a decade-long state of neglect.  But neither has notable public amenities, save for the public parking spaces.  And that's not just my opinion.  SkiCo's decision whether to replace the ancient Lift 1A is contingent on new development in the area that provides public and skier amenities that justify such an investment.  There is zero indication that these two developments check the box for SkiCo.  Besides, Aspen's community development staff specifically stated that a base area redevelopment that at this critical portal to the ski area MUST be accessible to us - the locals, not closed off by development so as to benefit only the few who have properties there.

Myth #4:  SkiCo is holding the community hostage; they can afford to replace 1A without Gorsuch Haus

Personally, I'm sick and tired of the "SkiCo owes us" mentality. 2-3% of Aspen skiers use the current Lift 1A.  As such, SkiCo has no economic motivation to spend money on a replacement when so few skiers use it.  This is not a matter of what SkiCo and the Crown family can or will afford.  It's an investment decision.  And yes, they are exerting some leverage.  They can.  An improved and expanded base area with convenient public access and appealing amenities will enable and encourage more skier traffic and greater use of a new lift.  THAT's when an investment would make sense.

A hotel and base area redevelopment such as that proposed by Gorsuch Haus offers what SkiCo is looking for in terms of expanded skier traffic and public amenities on the west side of the mountain.  Gorsuch Haus additionally offers ME, a daily skier, amenities that I value and have been waiting years for, and that includes the new lift.

Myth #5:  Gorsuch Haus is yet another example of greedy developers looking to line their pockets at the expense of the community

The developer, Norway Island Partners, is a team of well-respected, long-term locals:

Jeff Gorsuch.  Skiing runs deep in the Gorsuch family: his father won the Roch Cup Downhill at Aspen and his mother made the podium in the 1950s.  Jeff skied on the Europa Cup circuit, and is active on numerous local boards:  AVSC, Aspen Education Foundation and the Aspen Community School.  Today, Jeff manages his family's eponymous retail operation and is raising his family in Aspen.

Early on, Bryan Peterson raced and trained in Aspen, and later returned to be the head coach of AVSC.  He currently coaches the US Adaptive Ski Team and is also raising his young family here. 

Jim DeFrancia is a 30-year resident of Aspen with ties to the community dating to 1883 when his great-grandfather arrived in town. DeFrancia is spearheading the project for Lowe Enterprises, a hotel development and management company with a 45-year history in Aspen.  The Gant was Lowe's original project; other local properties include Ute Place, W-J Ranch and 8 additional properties in Snowmass Village, not to mention numerous hotel properties throughout the country.

These are our friends, our neighbors.  They are devoted Aspen citizens whose commitments to our community run deep.  Drop the talk about them manipulating the process for their own benefit.  This is not a cut-and-run outfit.  Not by a long shot.

The Red Ant knows, trusts and respects this team.  From the get go, the entire project has been predicated on community access and inclusion.  They request no variances from their proposed zoning.  All plans are within what is permitted by code, parking is underground, and subsidized housing will be both on-site and elsewhere in Aspen.  Gorsuch Haus will not burden the community in any way.  It's exactly what we need, where we need it.  And this is the team to get it done.  It's the right project in the right place with the right team at the right time.

Myth #6:  FIS officially granted Aspen the 2017 World Cup Finals so we don't need a new base area and replacement of Lift 1A

Thankfully, FIS did indeed recently allow Aspen to remain on the schedule as host of the 2017 World Cup finals.  But it was a close call.  Since 2014 when Aspen was awarded the prestigious event, that status was tenuous.  FIS made it abundantly clear that the base area where the race course ends looked more like a 1940 sheep pasture than a world class international resort worthy of hosting the world's biggest week of ski racing.  They also demanded a replacement for Lift 1A.  While neither situation will be remedied in time for the 2017 program, FIS was apparently sufficiently impressed by Aspen's progress toward their desired upgrades for the area.  The races in 2017 stay, and Aspen narrowly dodges an internationally embarrassing rebuke. Phew!  But future consideration for World Cup events remains tied to the redevelopment of the ski area base and replacement of 1A.  Aspen is off the rotation until these occur.

Are you kidding?  We DO need a revitalized second base area here.  We always have.  This is not about ski racing per se, but never, ever forget the role of ski racing in Aspen's history.  If not a stated one, it should be, but ski racing (and Walter Paepcke) put us on the map.  It IS critical that we maintain our skiing reputation on the international stage.  

Myth #7:  Gorsuch Haus infringes on historic view planes and mars the views of Aspen Mountain

We know that the building will not exceed 49 at any point'.  As far as how high up the hill Gorsuch Haus lies, it's important to compare it to other slope-side development that currently exists at high points along the ski area boundary.  (The SkiCo trail maps are cartoon illustrations and do not accurately convey the actual "how high up" locations.)   The 700 building of the Aspen Alps and two large private residences above that on the far eastern side of Ajax along Little Nell, as well as the private residences at the top of South Mill Street properties are higher up the mountain than Gorsuch Haus, and none provide ANY public amenities, not to mention a slope-side public bar, restaurant and patio, and ensure a vital lift replacement and upgrade.  (See the city's Green Line map HERE.)

The Land Use Code (section 26.435.050) requires the protection of historic view planes of the mountain from various points in town.  The objective is to "protect mountain views from obstruction, strengthen the environment and aesthetic character of the city, maintain property values, and enhance the city's tourist industry by maintaining Aspen's heritage as a mountain community."  P&Z will surely use their compasses to determine the exact impacts here.  But, just because the project will be uphill of neighboring properties on South Aspen Street,this does not implicitly mean that it infringes on or violates protected view planes!

Myth #8:  Gorsuch Haus will be built so far up the hill that it will cut off access to 1A for skiers of Norway trail

No, it won't!  Don't let it sound complicated.  It's not.  It will be a natural transition back to 1A, not at all unlike access to the Ajax Express when skiing down Hanging Tree. 

First, let's talk about Norway.  Looking up South Aspen Street, see those boulders on the steep face to the right?  That's Norway. The wooded area between Norway trail and the bottom of 1A is called Norway Island.  Norway Island is directly above the Gorsuch Haus site.  For Norway trail skiers who don't stop for a beer on the Gorsuch Haus patio, a "skier's right" above the property brings skiers to the run-out to the 1A base.  The planned east side loading area for the 1A replacement lift will require skiers to cross beneath the lift itself, unlike the current path to 1A (which loads on the west side and is accessed in a straight line) because there is no west-side access to the lift. 

Myth #9The land proposed for the Gorsuch Haus project is "conservation land," currently designated to be vacant and protected forever

The four distinct parcels that comprise the Gorsuch Haus property are currently zoned "Conservation" (C).  The Conservation zoning has effectively served as a "placeholder" for potential future use as a ski area base, just as the Conservation zoning of parcel where The Little Nell and Gondola Plaza (including the gondola) stand served to accommodate that development until it came to fruition.  (The Little Nell et al were constructed before SKI zoning even existed, on land zoned Conservation.)  For Gorsuch Haus to move forward, the land will have to be re-zoned to SKI.  Such a change (from Conservation to SKI) is not unprecedented. 

According to Aspen's Land Use Code, the purpose of the (C) zone district is "to provide areas of low density development to enhance public recreation, conserve natural resources, encourage the production of crops and animals, and to contain urban development."  Permitted uses include residential dwellings, stables, cemetery, railroad and temporary special events.  Conditional uses include sewage disposal and ski lifts and other ski facilities. 

The land use code additionally has a zoning category called "Ski Area Base" (SKI).  This relatively new category is designed specifically for property at the base of ski areas.  The purpose of the SKI zone district is to provide areas "which allow for a mixture of uses related to ski area uses and operations," including lodge/hotel.

The land in question for Gorsuch Haus, under contract to the developer, is currently owned by SkiCo, which has long desired a second base area on this site. 

The land use code's full description of what "Conservation" zoning allows clearly illustrates that, despite the perception of endangered species, protected habitats and visions of Yellowstone National Park that the word "conservation" conjures, in no way does this zoning district require maintenance as pristine wilderness where the deer and the antelope play.  We are NOT talking National Geographic, Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy here!  More like recreational uses such as country club and golf course, dairy, guest ranches and the aforementioned sewage disposal area.

In short, Gorsuch Haus is NOT asking that protected "conservation land" be compromised to meet their purposes.  Don't fall for that!  This has nothing to do with open space and untouched wilderness.  The project is proposed for land that is currently zoned "Conservation" including the myriad approved uses above, and they are asking for a change to "SKI" zoning, the technically appropriate zoning district for a second ski area base and access portal to the mountain. 

Myth #10:  Gorsuch Haus will forever kill the possibility of lift service as far down as Dean Street

The plans for the replacement of 1A at Gorsuch Haus have the lift located in essentially the same location as it exists today.  This begs the obvious question -- Why there, and not lower on the hill near Dean Street, where Aspen's original (1947) lift was located?  (Since 1976, skiers accessing 1A from town either walk up or use on-street parking that is currently being eliminated.)  Earlier failed redevelopment efforts in the neighborhood entertained a "platter pull" surface lift concept that would have made it easy for skiers in town to quickly and easily access 1A.  However, at this juncture, there are no plans for lift service of any kind below 1A. 

The Gorsuch Haus parcel DOES NOT include land below 1A.  How that land is utilized is in the hands of Lift One Lodge.  The narrow corridor enabling skiers to ski further down the hill is likely too narrow for both a surface lift and downhill skiing.  The developers of Gorsuch Haus recently made a notable adjustment to their design that enables a future extension of 1A down the mountain should conditions change.  In the meantime, the current proposal is for a public transit loop shuttle from the hotel's turnaround to Rubey Park.

I like this project. A lot. It's what we've needed for a long, long time.  In the wonderful days of the Holland House and Skier's Chalet, we got a taste of it.  But for years, this space has been left in limbo.  Ugly limbo.  We had a chance several years ago, but the planets were not correctly aligned and it didn't pan out.  Fingers can be pointed in many directions.  But the long and short is, something is going to happen.  The question is what.  Will it be a development that meets SkiCo's desires and warrants a Lift 1A upgrade?  Or will it be something that fits in existing zoning -- some more private residences like those at the top of Mill Street?  More residential and no public amenities all but ensure that the concept of a second public portal to the mountain is gone forever.

The west side of Aspen is where it all began with the famous "boat tow" lift in 1936.  This is the historic portal to skiing in Aspen.  Looking to the future, we have a rare second chance to get this right.  Can we really wait for a third?  And that is in no way to imply that we should approve something that isn't fantastic.  In my opinion, Gorsuch Haus IS fantastic.  I strongly believe it is a community obligation to honor our past with a vision for the future that links our ski racing history to our world class destination ski area infrastructure.

This is a critical "legacy" issue.  Once this parcel is developed (and it will be), we won't get a re-do here.  Earlier in the piece, I mentioned that the Little Nell is the only ski-in/ski-out hotel in Aspen.  Think about it.  That's crazy.  If we are going to be the best and continue to compete with the best, we must offer the best.  It will take a community-wide commitment to improve and upgrade our offerings.  Lift 1A and the west side of Ajax from Ruthie's on down has fabulous skiing that very few ever enjoy.  (Most skiers just cut across Summer Road and go back to the gondola.)  

A revitalized 1A and second portal to Aspen Mountain is exactly what we need.  The FIS scare of having the World Cup finals revoked was real.  And let us not forget our history as a ski racing mecca.  Nor our role in the story of American skiing.

It's been said of the hotel, "Gorsuch Haus is a project that connects the heart of the community with the story of the mountain."  I'm sentimental.  I like that.  And it's true.  It was mining that made this town, but skiing that sustained it.  Skiing is this community's most important societal and economic driving force, and history's most important contribution to today's Aspen.  Let's not forget what got us here.

Gorsuch Haus principals will be meeting (in public) with P&Z on July 5.  It will go something like this:  city staff presentation with Q&A / Gorsuch Haus presentation with Q&A / Public Comment / Opportunity for Gorsuch Haus to address comments / Planning & Zoning board (public) discussion / Decision.  A lot for one night, for sure.  Wise money says this will use up all the time on July 5 and continue on July 19.  From there, P&Z's decision goes to Council.

To date, Gorsuch Haus has widespread community support. They have held multiple well-attended public events and made changes to their plans according to feedback gleaned.  Recent rumblings in opposition have been just that, rumblings. 

I hope you will look seriously at the project with the facts in mind, and weigh the long term repercussions of the impending decisions facing P&Z and council related to the zoning change that will enable or prevent Gorsuch Haus from becoming a reality.  Whatever you decide, please focus on the facts.  And share them with your friends.

Be informed!!!

Visit the Gorsuch Haus website to learn more:

Attend the P&Z meeting(s):  July 5 (and July 19)

Write to council:



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