Another ski season has kicked off and the fate of the Lift One Corridor project remains unsettled after one of the major components changed hands earlier this year.
OKO Group, an international real estate development firm headed by Vladislav Doronin, purchased the Gorsuch Haus site near the base of Aspen Mountain and the approvals for an 81-room hotel for $76.25 million in March. The Miami-based OKO Group is one of four stakeholders participating in regular meetings coordinated by city of Aspen staff to keep the complicated corridor project steaming ahead. In addition to the Gorsuch Haus, the broader project includes a different developer’s construction of the Lift One Lodge, replacement of Lift 1A and construction of a ski museum.
The stakeholders have been meeting for months to coordinate construction schedules and other aspects of the project, according to city of Aspen officials. However, despite participating in that process, OKO Group was noncommittal in an emailed reply to an Aspen Daily News inquiry through its public relations firm, JConnelly, on whether they would proceed with the approvals granted by Aspen City Council and ratified by voters or seek to amend the hotel plan.
“They have received a number of questions from other press outlets in Aspen, but have not provided further detail, as they remain in the early stages of the development process and thus they don't have a firm timeline in place for construction, or any other specific details surrounding the project, which we are able to share,” the PR firm’s response said.
OKO Group inherited approvals for the hotel and associated space from Norway Island LLC. But it remains to be seen if the approvals match the standards and branding of Doronin’s ultra-luxury Aman Resorts, which works in conjunction with OKO Group.
Time is ticking on OKO Group’s window to chart a course in Aspen. The vested rights for the project were granted for five years when the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission approved technical details of the hotel in December 2020. OKO Group must submit an application for a building permit and provide enough time for city staff to review it for completeness by Dec. 24, 2025. Or, the group must seek an extension of the vested rights, according to city spokesperson Denise White.
Some members of the Aspen City Council suspect Doronin will seek changes necessary to build a luxury hotel.
Councilman John Doyle said he researched Aman resorts after Doronin entered the Aspen scene.
“It seems to be he’s not going to be happy with the design as it is,” Doyle said. “Really they’ve given us no indication one way or the other. Based on the people they’ve actually spoken with at City Hall, the vast majority of the thinking is that they will ask for changes, just based on who he is and what his resorts look like and who they are trying to attract. Maybe they can get away with (the current approvals) with the walls and roofs the way they are and just do interior changes. I guess we’ll see.”
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said he doesn’t see how the hotel project pencils out financially for OKO Group as it stands now.
“Norway Island LLC had a pro forma that worked with their land acquisition price of $10 million from the Aspen Skiing Company,” Hauenstein said. “If all of a sudden you add 66 million more dollars, does that pro forma still work? I don’t deal with those types of numbers but my guess is no.”
Aman Resorts opened a mixed-use project in the Crown Building on Fifth Avenue in New York in September. The project includes 83 guest rooms and 22 residences. The New York Times reported that the smallest rooms are 745 square feet and the cost for the least expensive rate was $3,200 per night at the time of opening.
Gorsuch Haus is approved for 81 hotel rooms, four residences, one employee housing unit and 7,730 square feet of leasable commercial space. The approvals allow for a variety of lodge room sizes and configurations. The city granted an increase in lodge unit density of 10% “which represents 1 lodge unit/550 square feet of gross lot area,” the approval ordinance says. The four residences are capped at 1,500 square feet but can be increased to 2,000 square feet if transferable development rights are used to extinguish development elsewhere.
Aman’s resorts and hotels show a tendency to pamper well-heeled guests with large units and loads of amenities. Aman recently expanded into urban hotels. It is opening luxury projects in Tokyo and Bangkok in 2023, one in Miami in 2024 and the Los Angeles Aman Hotel in 2026, according to a July 2022 online article in Hotels Magazine. Aman COO Roland Fasel said in the article that the company has nine hotels under construction and 20 at some level of commitment. Obviously, the company has its hands full and Aspen is a small part of its plan.
Fasel said in the Hotel Magazine article that the proper selection of properties is essential for brand recognition and creating a “feeder market” for the company’s worldwide resorts.
If OKO Group decides it needs to alter the approvals for the Gorsuch site, it could trigger a complicated process. Aspen’s community development department issued a “Land Use Interpretation” in April 2020 to define what happens when there are major and minor amendments proposed to site specific development plans.
“As noted in the interpretation, the determination of whether a proposed amendment is major or minor is made on a case-by-case basis,” city spokesperson White said in an email. “Minor amendments may be approved administratively pursuant to the code in place at the time of the original approval. Major amendments will be processed pursuant to the code in place at the time of the amendment and will be considered by the applicable body. A major amendment to a Lift 1 project would likely go to Council.”
Council members said if amendments to the Gorsuch Haus approval came to the council, that would potentially put many issues back in play. Doyle said the council could review the requests and also ask the developer to “tweak it.”
“That would be my first thing, if he wants to change stuff I would want to talk to his reps about maybe reinstating employee housing back on-site, just as an example,” Doyle said. “I’m going to be scrutinizing everything that comes across my desk very closely.”
There is currently only one on-site employee unit affiliated with the Gorsuch Haus. That was a controversial aspect of the proposal during the city review and voter election in March 2019.
Hauenstein said didn’t want to get into specifics about what would be open for scrutiny if OKO Group seeks to amend the hotel approval, but he suggested there would be a lot on the table.
“If they need to change what’s been approved, I would welcome them to come, but if they come back to amend the approval that would open up all different aspects of the approval,” he said.
Aspen Mayor Torre was reluctant to talk about the future of the Gorsuch Haus site until the new owner’s intentions became clear.
“As somebody who might have to sit on one side of a negotiating table or a public hearing or sending something to voters, it’s best that I stay neutral and open to whatever possibilities,” he said.
But Torre acknowledged it is reasonable to question if OKO Group is content with the approvals or will seek to alter them to fit its strategy.
“We do anticipate something going on with this property and some possible amendments, absolutely,” he said. “How am I positioned for it? I am positioned to work for the best interests of my community. How that plays out, there’s not a clear road map for that, I don’t believe.”
One intriguing detail is the city election that was held over the Gorsuch Haus approvals and use of city assets to make the broader project work. The hotel was approved by just a 26-vote margin, 1,555 votes in favor and 1,529 votes in opposition, in a March 2019 voter referendum.
City staff couldn’t answer Tuesday if a major amendment for the hotel approval would require another citizen election.
“The city attorney’s office has not undertaken any evaluation as to whether or not a major amendment would require voter approval,” White said in an email.
Doyle and Hauenstein said they would need more information from city staff before they could comment on whether they would support a public vote for Gorsuch Haus amendments. Torre noted he is a “big fan” of advisory votes.
“This situation would probably be similar to one we had where you look for that direction from the community, but this is such a politically charged item and issue, approaching that will take a delicate touch,” he said.”
By Scott Condon, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer Nov 30, 2022