by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Aspen City Council’s Monday work session about the future of the Lift 1A neighborhood represented progress in that all sides of the multi-faceted negotiations agreed to continue exploring ways to bring the new lift a few blocks down the South Aspen Street hill.
It also showed how much work is still to be done if the hopes and dreams of many — to introduce a more accessible, closer-to-town mountain portal as the area is blanketed with new development — are ever to be realized.
The three-and-a-half-hour meeting came in response to a planning exercise led by a respected ski area design consultant that brought together the city of Aspen, the Aspen Skiing Co. and developers of the Lift One Lodge and Gorsuch Haus projects, two hotels planned for the east side of South Aspen Street at the bottom of the Aspen Mountain ski area. SE Group published a report last week, five months in the making, evaluating nine different scenarios for a lower ski lift. At least two of those scenarios have enough buy in from the participants to warrant further study, according to multiple comments at Monday’s meeting.
One of the two that results in the lowest chairlift alignment would bring the bottom terminal roughly to where Juan Street intersects Willoughby Park, just steps from a planned reworked transit drop off at Dean Street. This involves running a new chairlift between two previously designed and approved buildings of the Lift One Lodge that straddle a ski corridor. Because of proximity to the buildings, such a lift alignment would require a variance from the state’s tramway safety board.
With a total clearance between the buildings of barely 50 feet, before the run widens at the bottom to accommodate mazing and skier circulation, multiple speakers at Monday’s meeting questioned if the lower lift justifies what some believe would be a sub-par skiing experience on the last few hundred feet of the run.
“We can make that work but it’s probably not the most desirable skiing product,” SkiCo Vice President for Planning David Corbin told the council, referring to the tight passageway. Councilman Adam Frisch earlier in the night dubbed it the “Lift One Lodge chutes.”
Corbin noted that many Aspen Mountain skiers enjoy lapping Lift 1A and mountain operators must maintain the quality of the return-skiing experience.
One woman who owns a condo near the 1A base told council during a public comment session that she doesn’t see herself doing laps there because of the narrow corridor, while another commenter predicted that the width of the path would make the area more like a “bobsled run.”
Having to maintain a consistent snow surface in that area would also be a challenge, in terms of snowmaking operations and grooming. Such activities could also be an inconvenience for hotel guests whose rooms loom over the corridor.
Mayor Steve Skadron, framing one of the key questions before the council, said that beyond feasibility, all parties have to be comfortable with whether or not any potential solution is also suitable.
A lower lift would satisfy an emotional desire, but would it be used?
Councilwoman Ann Mullins responded that she wants to see a lower chairlift because of the 145,000 square feet of visible development and 164 lodge keys between the Gorsuch and Lift One Lodge projects that would be built between the Dean Street portal and the existing Lift 1A site.
“Everything gets built up and the lift becomes a private lift” for the two hotels, she said. Bringing it down to Dean Street in the midst of the redevelopment “makes the access public again,” she added.
Although it was not evaluated among the nine scenarios, some council members and public speakers advocated for putting a bottom terminal near Dean Street with second-stage loading roughly where the existing terminal sits. This would allow return-skier traffic to avoid the “Lift One Lodge chutes” and potentially alleviate ski-area operations challenges, Councilman Ward Hauenstein said.
The SkiCo’s Corbin, however, cautioned that having two loading zones in what is already a constricted ski zone complicates a challenging circulation plan and could be “redundant” when the terminals are separated by roughly 500 linear feet and 70 vertical feet.
The SE Group report also examined having a “funicular” people-mover system or surface tow connecting Dean Street with a new lift. None of those concepts passed initial muster, however, since a surface lift splitting the Lift One Lodge property complicates return skiing and requires the construction of a 16-foot-tall overpass above maintenance road.
Council members expressed interest in finding out if such a system could be designed with less landscape and visual impact. Richard Shaw, a principal with landscape architecture firm Design Workshop, that is consulting on the Gorsuch Haus project, noted that technology is available that could put such a people mover underground.
Council sent the city planning staff, the ski area consultant, the developers and the SkiCo off with marching orders to further evaluate an enhanced people mover concept, as well as two-stage loading. It’s unclear when the next meeting will take place.
Other issues that need more study and consideration include impacts on the historic chairlift that sits in Willoughby and Lift One parks — Aspen’s original Lift 1 that ran from 1947-1971. Three historic lift towers are placed in the middle of the ski passageway near the bottom and the original lift loading area is near where the new lift loading area would be sited.
A suggestion offered from the public would have the infrastructure moved off site and restored, in a similar fashion to the cabins recently moved from the Main Street site of the new police station to the Marolt Open Space.
That could be a tough sell for city officials.
All scenarios for a lower lift have impacts on the historic infrastructure that would require thorough study by the historic preservation staff and commission, said community development director Jessica Garrow.
“I’m not sure we could recommend in good conscience that these lift tower be moved to some off site location,” she said.
Mullins said having the mid-century lift that dates to the beginning of skiing in Aspen placed next to the new lift would be an opportunity to integrate history and tell a powerful story, especially with plans for a new ski museum that would be built along with the Lift One Lodge.