New era dawning at Vail
$1 billion in renovations and development work spur debate as town redesigns its European feel

Publication: Rocky Mountain News; Date: 02/12/2007

By Tom Boyd

VAIL - From atop Golden Peak, Buddy Lazier and his 8-year-old son have a view like few others: They can see their hometown, their house and their family's hotel, the Tivoli.

On a recent ski day together, the pair stopped to take a bird's-eye view of Vail as it undergoes a billion-dollar renewal.

Projects have transformed the village into something different from the place Lazier knew growing up here in the 1960s and 1970s.

In those days, framed by a mix of dark-brown lodges and squarish, 1970s-style architecture, Lazier cradled dreams of becoming an Olympic ski racer. Instead, he went on to become an IndyCar racer, winning the 1996 Indianapolis 500 and the 2000 IndyCar championship.

Lazier likes to win - and he thinks Vail's recent renewal is a winning prospect that keeps it on track to maintain its near-perennial status as the No. 1 ski resort in North America (according to readers of Ski Magazine).

"If you're going to have the No. 1 mountain, you're going to want to have the No. 1 town to go with it. It's like an IndyCar; you've got to have balance or you're into the wall," Lazier said.

Despite the renewal, some believe Vail is headed toward "the wall." Pioneer resident and former town councilman Merv Lapin is among those who believe Vail is losing its old appeal.

"I think the (European flavor) of Vail is gone," said Lapin, who first came to town in 1966. "With 10-story buildings and these massive projects, Vail will have an appeal to people who already live in high-density situations. It's not what I wanted for Vail. There's no longer anything unique about Vail. It's becoming just another city."

Whether Lapin wants it or not, the overhaul known as Vail's New Dawn is well under way. The Lazier's Tivoli, for example, has been open for business since summer.

Lazier and his family have put everything they've got into Vail and they're counting on it being successful.

"We wouldn't dream of leaving here because life equals Vail," he said. "(The redesign) is turning out so much better than any of us could've hoped."

The redesign certainly is the biggest transformation of Vail since the early 1960s, when no one knew the risk or potential of the town.

In those days, Vail put itself on the world ski map by offering a European-style ski experience. Its competitors, such as Aspen and Crested Butte, were all of the mining-town-come-ski-town variety.

Things were different for people such as Bob Lazier, Buddy's father, who came to Vail in the early 1960s. Lazier borrowed European designs for his first hotel, named it after the town of Tivoli in Italy, and presto - one of Vail's most noted lodges was born.

Lazier draws parallels between those early days and current times, yet he feels the town has more direction than before.

"The concept in this town is that we are guardians of this mountain," Bob Lazier said. "This mountain is like a national park; it's owned by the Forest Service and by the people of the United States. We love this town, but it's more than a love. It's a passion."

Same, but different

This passion doesn't require a European stamp of approval. Vail has stopped looking to Europe for guidance and is forging into new territory. There still are whispers of old Europe in the new architecture and layout of the town, but there are significant departures from the European way, too.

In Europe, there are age-old paving stones. In Vail, there are heated paving stones. Where Europe is notorious for combative lift lines, a Vail lift line involves alternating riders, organized mazes and cute little tissue dispensers.

Where a sign in Europe can be hard to find and harder to read, Vail posts signs at every turn.

Where self-reliance is the one- and-only ski philosophy in Europe, Vail has armies of red- or yellow-jacketed employees strategically placed to help Vail's guests - in any language.

Whatever level of customer service Vail already has achieved, it still wants more. There is a kind of customer-service Cold War ongoing in the ski industry, and Vail Resorts' Reagan-esque approach to the matter is to initiate an arms race.

Vail Resort's contributions to the renewal include Vail's Front Door project and Lionshead's Arrabelle, both centered around an unabashed effort to raise the bar on skier services.

"I think these two base arrival points will be the new standard for the global ski industry for convenience, skier-service and the guest," Vail Mountain chief operating officer Bill Jensen said.

Jensen is keen to show locals and employees - not just high- dollar guests - also will benefit from Vail's megaplexes.

Public squares and ice-skating rinks are factored into the Front Door and Arrabelle projects, along with fairly posh employee facilities.

"We'll have purpose-built, back-of-the-house employee locker rooms, and we're the only ones I'm aware of doing that," he said.

Growth and progress

It's possible things are getting better, and they're definitely getting bigger, but they're not getting any cheaper. Residence prices in Vail have risen as high as $2,800 per square foot.

Yet there is no stopping the boom, which is only halfway through its bang. Along with the opening of the Tivoli, Vail Village has seen the completion of several other major projects. Key among these is Phase I of the Streetscape Project ($10 million), a public works effort designed to keep the streets, waterlines and public artwork up to snuff with the new buildings.

"The intention with (Street- scape) has been to create that Old World European ambiance," Vail spokeswoman Suzanne Silverthorne said. "It really makes for a very complementary kind of atmosphere."

Perhaps the most noticeable change will come in March, when the private One Willow Bridge Road complex opens.

The $100 million project is across from the current Crossroads building. Trimmed with copper and dotted with pseudo- medieval towers and parapets, One Willow cranks the posh- meter to a new level.

Representatives say the high- tech interiors are intended to outwow the Four Seasons and Ritz- Carleton projects, both to be completed in coming years.

It requires hundreds of thousands of dollars, minimum, to gain access to the upper floors, but the ground floor is geared to please the public. A gourmet market, wine bar and boutique shops are expected to open this year.

Across the street awaits an even bigger project, Solaris. The $170 million complex will include an ice-skating rink, a bowling alley and 73 condominiums priced from $2 million to $17 million.

Investors are hoping the buildings, which will replace Crossroads by 2008, will become a town center. The size of the building initially was rejected by Vail's town council, but the 10-story building was approved when a new council was elected.

Solaris created more of a stir than any other project, largely because of its 10-story design. Lapin and other old-guard citizens lobbied against it, yet they seem to take a softer view on smaller projects such as the Tivoli.

This sits well with Buddy La-zier, who is hoping his view from atop Golden Peak keeps improving. As guardian of what his father is passing on to him, Buddy said he feels an obligation to do what is best for the town.

In doing so he is constantly aware of his son, Flinn, and daughter, Jacqueline, members of Vail's next generation who will ultimately judge Vail's New Dawn.

Lionshead revival

Built in the 1970s, Lionshead always has been a hiccup in the overall feel of Vail's town center. Large, looming piles of concrete formerly defined Vail's western portal.

Now a huge building and Lionshead base area - the $250 million Arrabelle - is under construction adjacent the gondola. The design of the complex, to be completed in November, fits Vail's other large projects: European in spirit yet bigger and more dense than most of what's seen in Europe.

Supporters say Lionshead was overdue for an overhaul; detractors say the building is too large and blocks the view. The cost to buy in is astronomical (properties are selling from $1,500 to $2,800 a square foot). But the structure will include a public plaza that will serve as a gathering place in summer and an ice rink in winter. It also will house new facilities for Vail Ski Patrol, ski instructors, guest services and other employees.

One thing is certain: More than any other place in Vail, Lionshead will look and feel like a brand-new town.

What's going on?

Some of the current and planned upgrades at Vail and Lionshead.

  • Termed Vail's billion-dollar renewal, the renovations of hotels, other properties and streetscapes in Vail Village and Lionshead already have involved more than $200 million in investments.
  • More than 100 new lodge units and 9,250 square feet of retail space are open this season.
  • Another 130 lodge units and 40,000 square feet of retail space are scheduled to be completed in the next two years.

Projects to be completed by spring

  • The Tivoli Lodge ($30 million): Completed.
  • The Sonnenalp Resort at Vail ($4 million): Completed.
  • Vail Mountain Lodge & Spa ($25 million): .
  • The Antlers at Vail ($24 million): Completed.
  • Vail Cascade Resort & Spa ($20 million): Completed.
  • Vail Marriott Mountain Resort & Spa ($32 million): Completed.
  • Town of Vail Streetscape Project ($10 million): Phase I completed.
  • One Willow Bridge Road ($100 million): March.
  • The Vail Plaza Club Hotel Resort ($70 million): April.

On the horizon

  • The Arrabelle at Vail Square ($250 million): November.
  • Vail's Front Door ($115 million): November.
  • Four Seasons Resort Vail ($260 million): Fall 2008.
  • Timberline Lodge & Condominiums ($25 million): October 2008.
  • Solaris ($170 million): Summer 2009.
  • Ritz-Carlton Residence, Vail (price TBD): January 2010.
  • Manor Vail Resort ($65 million): TBD.

On the Web

Vail's New Dawn: NewVail.com
The Tivoli Lodge: TivoliLodge.com
The Christiania Lodge: Christiania.com
One Willow Bridge Road: OneWillowBridgeRoad.com
The Arrabelle: TheArrabelle.com