Super-Rich Shake Up Aspen’s ‘Curated Snow Dome’

Super-Rich Shake Up Aspen’s ‘Curated Snow Dome’

The new year is prime time for Aspen’s business owners such as Karin Derly, whose French Alpine Bistro is in the centre of the well-heeled Colorado resort. “The world’s most extravagant ski parties take place here,” says Derly of the town she has called home for 13 years. “People hire ski instructors that cost more than $1,000 a day, just so they can get safely to the on-mountain parties and back.” They buy all the latest luxury ski gear too, she says — not to wear on the slopes, just to flaunt at gatherings. Local realtor Brittanie Rockhill at Douglas Elliman describes Aspen as a “curated snow globe” with its designer boutiques, historic buildings and almost nothing exceeding 28ft in height, “keeping the view of the mountain ever present”. Aspen’s 7,000 full-time residents are used to seeing their picturesque home inundated with about 1.4mn visitors every ski season, many of them America’s super-rich seeking sanctuary in this gilded outpost surrounded by the vast Colorado wilderness. The visiting A-list movie and pop stars who garner most of the paparazzi attention tend only to rent for a week or two, says Rockhill, but she adds that a far greater number of seasonal arrivals in town are big-hitting chief executives, who fly under their radar. Among them, Aspen counts more than 100 billionaire homeowners, calculates local appraiser and broker Randy Gold from the Aspen Appraisal Group, and many of them are repeat buyers, such as the Tampa-based owner of a car dealership network who last May added a seven-bedroom, 21,000 sq ft mansion to his portfolio — for $76mn. Even rarefied Aspen is not immune from the wider slowdown in the property market. Some 187 homes sold last year, down from 404 in 2021, according to Aspen and Glenwood Multiple Listing Service data; the median sale price in the last three months of the year was down 15 per cent compared with the same period in 2022. Still, total sales topped $2bn last year, with the average price just shy of $10mn. But, at the top end, big-ticket sales are still going through, with more sales above $60mn being recorded in 2023 than in previous years. 

Typically, there might be one such sale a year, says Rockhill, but there were five last year between $60mn and $76mn. “These properties stood out from the pack, usually for their ski in/out access, which is rare in Aspen,” she adds, and their size. Building large, grand homes in Aspen has just become a lot more difficult. Pitkin County’s latest cap on building size, introduced in November, reduced the maximum size of new houses from 15,000 sq ft to 9,250 sq ft in a move to cut carbon emissions. The cap is expected to be revised down again to 8,750 sq ft this year, the continuation of decades of downzoning in Aspen to limit the environmental impact of the town’s growth. “If you own a piece of land and thought you’d build up to 15,000 sq ft on it one day, the opportunity has gone,” says Rockhill. “A lot of owners who leave town have missed what’s happening while they’ve been away.”

The guiding principle behind the various changes to the land use code, as expressed by Pitkin County’s advisory committee, is that “as homes get bigger, things should get harder. The burden for what that home should do in terms of mitigation and giving back to the community should increase”. For property owners, says Sotheby’s agent Tim Estin, “it’s fuelling the sense that . . . the land use code is going to become more restrictive”. Anyone determined to build bigger could try developing two homes on one lot that, together, would exceed the 9,250 sq ft limit, says Estin, “if the lot size were big enough and the land use code permitted it”, he adds. “In the historic West End, a 12,000 sq ft lot would permit a home with two attached residences or two detached single-family homes, and in the Cemetery Lane area of West Aspen, where lot sizes are generally large, on a common-sized 15,000 sq ft lot, one could build a single-family home with two separate residences that share a common wall or garage wall,” he suggests. No Aspen home has ever sold for more than $100mn — a 10-bedroom house near the ski gondola listed for $100mn last year but sold for much less: $65mn, still a price record for downtown Aspen. But the town’s most expensive listing is currently on the market: a single plot with a main house, guest house and caretaker’s house, priced at $105mn. The combined living area is nearly 17,000 sq ft.

“This could be the first $100mn sale,” says Stephanie Kroll at Compass Aspen estate agency. “Most buyers would agree that the ideal Aspen home would be a well-designed, updated single-family estate property, close to town, with a great floor plan, privacy and stunning views. A few homes on Red Mountain are good examples of this and, at the very minimum, will cost $10mn,” she says. Capping the size of homes may, of course, deter the odd billionaire who has set their sights on a modern Aspen mansion, which would be welcome news to some residents. Despite the town having an affordable housing programme for local employees, “there is almost no free-market housing available that someone can afford on the wages they earn from a job in town. A subsidised single-family [house] can still cost more than $1mn,” says Roger Marolt, an accountant and local newspaper columnist who fears the town is losing its soul as the super-rich move in. “Aspen is already a billionaires’ enclave,” he says. There is almost no free-market housing available that someone can afford on the wages they earn from a job in town “The town is bifurcated into two very distinct groups — the multimillionaires/billionaires, and the workers living in government-subsidised housing.” Some of those who have lived in subsidised housing since the 1970s and 1980s are “cashing out”, he says. “The very wealthy are buying their old homes and rebuilding them as architectural masterpieces, mostly for show rather than to live in.” Meanwhile, says Marolt, doctors and lawyers can no longer afford to buy a home in Aspen. “It is a new dilemma of how to house professionals in our workforce.” Marolt also laments the closure of some of Aspen’s local bars and restaurants, including The Red Onion, Jimmy’s and, expected at the end of next year, Mi Chola. “There really aren’t many local places left to close.”

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By: Zoe Dare Hall I Financial Times I January 11, 2024

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