Ski resorts carve sites for cars

Publication: DenverPost.Com; Date: 06/21/2004

By Jason Blevins

In Aspen and Vail, slope-side parking is the rage, and developers are tapping demand with high-tech garages squeezed below quarter-block parcels.

Ski resort operator Vail Resorts Inc. has buried 109 parking spots beneath a half-acre parking lot inside pedestrian- only Vail Village. Each has sold for $100,000 to $135,000, or up to $800 a square foot. For a proposed nine more spaces, there's a waiting list of 34.

In Aspen, longtime developer Peter Fornell has sketched plans for a 99-spot, robotic parking garage a block from the city's gondola. He plans to sell each for $125,000.

Ten years ago, that kind of money could buy a modest slope-side condo 10 times larger.

"Parking downtown is a nightmare," he said. "Has been for years. We need help."

Fornell's plan to ease Aspen's woes is a mechanized garage that shuffles and stacks driverless cars in a three-story garage buried halfway underground. Spaces not used by owners would be rented daily for $12 to $20. The structure would cost between $2.2 million and $2.6 million on a parcel worth roughly $4 million.

Automated structures of this sort are popular in Europe and Japan, but the only similar garage in the United States is in Washington, D.C. By eliminating the ramps and roads needed to negotiate, the high-tech garage can more than double the density of a similarly sized building.

"He's identified a technology that is more cost-effective and efficient for a limited amount of real estate," said Hana Pevny, president and chief executive of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. "From a marketing standpoint, I think it could position Aspen in yet another perspective of being innovative and forward-thinking as a community."

In 1995, Aspen was the first city in North America to implement a citywide parking system using credit card kiosks that print parking vouchers. That pay-and-display technology is now common.

However, some Aspen leaders are not fond of Fornell's plan. The City Council has twice rejected it for a host of reasons. The garage requires some zoning and height variances, and it doesn't fit well with the largely residential neighborhood where it is proposed, Aspen Mayor Pro Tem Rachel Richards said.

"It doesn't seem like it could alleviate a lot of our parking problems," Richards said, noting the challenges in offering public parking in an area of town not meant for heavy car traffic. "I'd rather see us advance more support for the mass transit goals."

Fornell, who has spent 25 years in Aspen, said he gathered more than 1,000 signatures on an initiative petition to get his Park Place parking garage on the November ballot. The council rejected the petition five months after it rejected the project in late 2003. Fornell is now mulling legal action to advance his parking project.

"There is a lot of public support for this," he said. "You'd think the council would be for it."

In Vail, the new Vail Resorts' parking structure has been embraced. The company is spending $85,000 to develop each space, including the price of the land and construction costs, said Jack Hunn, vice president of the ski company's development division.

It wasn't difficult to sell the spaces to local business owners and village residents weary of the five-block march from the town's main parking structure.

"A lot of the buildings in town do not have parking, which was probably bad planning," said Vail Mayor Rod Slifer, who lives in the village and bought one of the parking spaces.

With their big price tags, the parking spots are another reminder of how the real estate markets of Colorado's mountain resorts resemble those of the toniest parts of dense urban centers such as Manhattan, Boston and Los Angeles. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld spent several million dollars to build his own five-car parking garage in New York. Parking spaces in Boston's Beacon Hill recently sold for more than $160,000.

"We are in the same situation with our limited land," Slifer said. "It's either lease it at outrageous rents or buy it."

Staff writer Jason Blevins can be reached at 303-820-1374 or jblevins@denverpost.com.