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Sizing up the growth of Vail

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VAIL – The arguments over the Crossroads proposal highlight a conundrum that successful ski resorts must solve, said Greg Ditrinco, executive editor of SKI magazine.”Skiers have always viewed the mountain as a refuge from the urban landscape,” Ditrinco said. “But increasingly, they are looking to resorts to provide urban-style amenities.”Some Crossroads opponents say the size of the proposed 99.9-foot-tall building would hurt Vail’s success – a success quantified by Vail’s repeated ranking as the No. 1 ski resort in North America in SKI magazine’s annual survey. Deer Valley in Utah earned the top spot last year. Vail was No. 2.The problem is offering those amenities without high-density development or urban-style congestion, Ditrinco said.”There is a tipping point where the experience becomes less rural mountain, more downtown city,” Ditrinco said.Right now, Ditrinco said, Vail manages that split.”Vail, in its current iteration, still pulls off an urban buzz with a small-town feel,” he said. “That’s hard to do.”Though he hasn’t seen specific plans for Crossroads, Ditrinco said the success of a big building will be determined in large part by how it’s executed. If it has good architecture and is people-friendly, density can be disguised, he said.The fate of the Crossroads proposal will be decided July 11 in a townwide vote.

The Crossroads proposal, called Solaris, would bring a three-screen movie theater, a 10-lane bowling alley, an ice rink/public plaza, stores and restaurants – things proponents say Vail needs to infuse life back into the town.”Some collection (of amenities) like that is very valuable and necessary,” said Ford Frick, a resort analyst with BBC Consulting and Research in Denver. Solaris also has 69 condos, with about $4 million in street improvements and $1.1 million in public art pledged by the developer.

Keeping Vail small-scale is moot at this point, Frick said.”Vail has made a commitment to being fairly urban,” he said.That commitment was shown in the recent spate of developments that bring a lot of density into the town, Frick said.Still, he calls the decision on the redevelopment of Crossroads a difficult decision with “no real objective truth.””One person can find it an appealing environment and one person can find it over the line,” he said.For Frick, the success of Solaris would depend heavily on its lowest 20 vertical feet – its storefronts and restaurants. Any additional reasons to be downtown are a good thing for Vail, he said. And density is a good thing for ski resorts, too, he said – it’s just a matter of how best to configure that bulk.”I think the town can accommodate that type of height and density and will in fact benefit from the liveliness and body heat that having density brings,” Frick said.

Potential visitors evaluate Vail in comparison with other resorts, said Ralf Garrison, a ski industry analyst with The Advisory Group. A lot of ski resorts are becoming “formula” resorts, Garrison said. In particular, Intrawest resorts, such as Copper and Winter Park, are copying the formula of Whistler, Garrison said. Those resorts are losing their ability to distinguish themselves, he said.But Vail was built independent of this “formula” approach, Garrison said.”It’s becoming more important to preserve the distinction in light of the formula village approach,” Garrison said.Many ski resorts are challenged with the appropriateness of scale – whether a big building blends in, Garrison said. Crossroads wouldn’t be an unacceptable departure for Vail, Garrison said.Vail already has its share of tall buildings. The Lodge Tower, at the base of Vail Mountain, is eight stories tall. The Mountain Haus, at the Covered Bridge, is six stories tall. And the under-construction Four Seasons and Vail Plaza Hotel and Club are similar in size to the Crossroads proposal.Unlike Aspen, Steamboat Springs or Crested Butte, Vail is a “built to order” ski resort – it wasn’t a town before it was a resort. Among “built to order” resorts, Vail is already one of the most urban ski resorts, Garrison said.The balancing act is allowing developments to be economically viable.”Any new efforts are going to have to be economically prudent, maximizing what they can achieve with their available land to make the numbers work,” Garrison said.

There is an obvious difference between the Bridge Street area and the frontage road – where Crossroads is – Frick said. Larger buildings are more acceptable on the periphery of the village near the interstate, he said.”You don’t want to tear down Pepi’s and go nine stories there at that site,” he said.Vail’s master plan for the village calls for buildings of three to four stories in height along Bridge Street, but five to six stories in some spots along the Frontage Road. The Bridge Street area represents the traditional image of Vail, the plan says. The plan acknowledges a need for “modest” growth while trying to preserve Vail’s character.Meanwhile, as Vail approaches 45 years in existence, it is undergoing $1 billion in development by Vail Resorts, private developers and the town, dubbed “the billion-dollar renewal.”A key part of that redevelopment is in Lionshead, where the Arrabelle at Vail Square hotel-condo project, now under construction, is a centerpiece. Lionshead had been criticized for its monolithic – even “Eastern bloc” – buildings.But the smaller-scale, Bavarian-style Vail Village meets three criteria that successful destinations have, Frick said. For one, it has a sense of history.”Vail has some of that,” Frick said. “Bridge Street has some remembrance of things past.”Two, it has a sense of activity: a place that’s alive with lots of people, Frick said. Three, it has a sense of “prophecy,” or potential, he said. Frick applauded Vail for its forward-thinking “renaissance.””Vail’s doing the right thing,” Frick said. “It’s experimenting. It’s taking some chances. It’s realizing it can’t be just faux Bavarian.”

With more than 5,000 acres of lift-served skiing, about 350 inches of snow a winter, the famed Back Bowls and the more recent addition of the acclaimed Blue Sky Basin, it’s hard to question Vail Mountain’s reputation as a premier ski mountain. So does it matter what the buildings at the base of the mountain look like?Yes, and increasingly so, Garrison said.”Fifteen to 20 years ago, the mountain was a very large part of a person’s decision about where to vacation,” Garrison said. “It is becoming less of a determining factor because the community is building up around yearround events and more things to do, where skiing is not just it.”Baby boomers are spending relatively less time on the mountain and more time in the village, Garrison said.”Certainly, the mountain is the centerpiece of Vail’s success,” Frick said. “But it has to have a complementary town to make it work.”Dick Hauserman was the chairman of the architectural committee that designed Vail in the early ’60s, a committee that included Fitzhugh Scott and Fritz Benedict.With guidance from Vail founder Pete Seibert, the committee adopted a European feel for the new village. Vail wanted to emulate skiing’s meccas in Europe.”All of the Eastern people in the U.S. were going to Europe to ski,” Hauserman said last week.That original vision is being challenged by Crossroads, he added.”The one basic thing is don’t crowd out the original charm that made it a ski resort, a wonderful place for skiing,” Hauserman said. “That’s happening if they’re not in keeping with the original design.”Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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