The Aspen Buzz

Aspen Commercial Real Estate Roundup

It doesn’t take more than a walk around town to see the there’s been a lot of action in Aspen’s commercial real estate over the last few years. Old buildings are being torn down and replaced with ultra-modern, almost urban-style facades that beg the question: has Aspen literally sold its soul?

Thinking Inside the box: a trend toward ultra-modern changes the face of downtown Aspen commercial real estate.

Thinking Inside the box: a trend toward ultra-modern changes the face of downtown Aspen commercial real estate.

Here to answer that question and more is Lorrie B. Winnerman, who, after 30 years as a real estate broker in Aspen can tell you once again: this is nothing new. We caught up with the Queen Bee of Aspen real estate to talk Mark Hunt, big development, and how history tends to repeat itself over and over again.

How has the climate of downtown real estate changed in the last few years?
It’s changed considerably. The change has been major. There have been a slew of major building purchases over the last few years that have really changed commercial real estate in downtown Aspen. But it was the shock of the Aspen Art Museum, which was the result of a lawsuit, that spawned some these buildings with a similar big box look that people are reacting to.

.How has the landscape itself changed? Is there truth to the notion that Aspen’s character is threatened?
The art museum is so out of place in terms of what it looks like and where it was placed that it was a thorn in a lot of local’s eyes. But it’s at the fault of the city. It’s the same scenario over and over again. The “no changers” put pressure on the city to strong-arm developers. What ends up happening time and time again is the city takes some kind of legislative action against the developer and a lawsuit ensues. Then, the development that happens as a result of the lawsuit is far worse than what the developer had planned in the first place. So you end up with these box-like buildings that then have huge variances from the zoning code.

Your client Mark Hunt just got shut down on his development proposal for Base 2 Lodge. He wanted to build a small hotel and the city put it to the voters, who shot it down. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?
I totally disagree with the case against Base 2. They wanted to prove a point that the city has rules. So now, instead of this beautiful little lodge, we’re going to end up with another commercial building. You can’t just have everything written in stone; sometimes you have to have negotiations. Zoning is subjective. But the city is not looking at the bigger picture. They want to reinforce these rules, but at the end of the day, nobody wins.

Don’t you think the city is threatened by having one developer snatch up so many properties at once? Maybe they view Mark Hunt as trying to monopolize downtown commercial real estate.
No way. There’s always been a few big developers in town. It goes back to Tony Mazza and Frank Woods & Stephen Marcus; these were the guys. They were the originals. So the current “new developers” are Garfield & Hecht & Mark Hunt. I remember when Boogie came along everyone went crazy because he had the nerve to put glass in on the top floor and then look what happened: everyone loved it. Before that it was Harley Baldwin: he was a real renegade. He lifted up an entire historical building and put in a basement and a penthouse and everyone was going crazy. These older buildings are higher than the newer ones. You just can’t win.

Before Mark Hunt came along there was nothing new being built and nothing being remodeled. I can’t imagine how all these old buildings even meet code anymore. But I think it was the Art Museum that set people off about the new development going on. And now Mark is stuck doing business in the wake of that mess.

What are some of the challenges of doing commercial real estate in Aspen today?
Specifically it’s the crazy legislation that was just passed by citizens that any variance has to go to the vote of the people. That makes almost any project impossible. It’s hard for anyone to understand zoning, never mind someone who has no working knowledge of it, which is most of the voters. Now the developers are being portrayed as the bad guy. You can’t win here. It’s constant.

But don’t you think it’s good to have strict zoning to keep development under control so we don’t have high-rise hotels and start looking like a Disneyland resort?
Yes. It’s essential we have zoning codes otherwise we’d look like Vail and that whole corridor. But what bothers me is you never see the complainers at any of the hearings. They’re not engaged in the process and they’re often not well informed. What does that tell you?

How are you as a broker able to meet those challenges?
My challenge is to get the deal done. I’m not part of planning or zoning. My expertise is in putting the deal together. My challenges are fun. But doing commercial real estate deals are way harder than people think. People look at these commissions and think I’m making a lot of money, but these deals take years to close. These big deals have their challenges but it’s just something I’ve always loved to do. Did the surgeon become a surgeon through training or did they already have the demeanor for it? I was born to negotiate.