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Vail’s New Look

Over the last four decades, this rough-and-tumble ski town has evolved into one of Colorado’s most polished resorts. Its next evolution will be the most ambitious yet. Jeff Wise reports.

By Jeff Wise

When 22-year-old bob lazier and his wife, Diane, first came to Vail, Colorado, in January 1963, they spent the night sleeping in their Morris Minor woody station wagon. It was bitterly cold. The resort had been open for just 19 days, and Bob and Diane had little money and no jobs. What they had was a passion for skiing and the optimistic grit of youth. "The next day she got a job as a waitress," Lazier says. "I made beds."

Today Lazier, now a vigorous 68, stands in a cavernous penthouse loft with three decks and magnificent views overlooking the steeply forested Gore Range in two directions. When it was furnished last month, the Laziers’ new 3,500-square-foot apartment became the crowning touch on a $30 million, basement-to-shingles rebuild of their 62-room Tivoli Lodge. Situated right at the edge of the ski mountain, built of hand-dressed stone and outfitted with custom cabinetry, the family’s new homestead mashes up the coziness of old-timey Tyrolean Alps with digital-age comforts, like computer-controlled lighting systems and Swedish walk-in showers with body jets.

The Laziers’ changing lifestyle echoes the evolution of Vail itself. What began 45 years ago as a speculative gamble by a handful of young skiing enthusiasts has long since morphed into a playground for affluent boomers and their progeny. And the renovation of the Tivoli is just a tiny part of a new wave of transformations that in coming years will turn Vail into an even glitzier, pricier version of its top-drawer self. Dubbed the Billion-Dollar Renewal, this aggregate of independent building and renovation projects will do more than add another level of sheen. It will change what the Vail experience is all about—and point the way for the future of the ski industry as a whole.

Though vail is the largest ski mountain in the United States, and long regarded as one of the best (it has toppedSkiámagazine’s annual poll 14 times in the last 19 years), the resort has always defined itself in relation to its rival 96 miles down the road. Aspen is West Coast, wild, celebutastic. Vail is East Coast, quieter, more family-oriented. Aspen is Hollywood; Vail is Wall Street. Aspen has the quaint village, an old mining town in authentic 19th-century Western vernacular. Vail has the mountain, a collection of peaks that harbors a seemingly endless series of vast bowls—5,289 acres of wide open slopes, most serviced by lifts, some reachable only on foot. From the beginning, both have drawn crowds who passionately love to ski and, increasingly, to spend money.

Founded in the early 60’s by veterans of the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division, Vail was quiescent until the early 70’s, when it underwent an epic boom. Scads of condos sprang up around a new gondola building a mile west of Vail Village, an area dubbed Lionshead (Born Freeábeing the pop mania of the moment). Developers put condos and time-shares on the market before they even broke ground, and the public snatched them up, fueling more construction—until the whole thing crashed amid the oil crisis of 1973. Not groovy.

The worst part of that Nixon-era legacy wasn’t all the cookie-cutter plywood fašades but all those condo owners’ associations. In order to change anything, you’d have to get a majority of the owners to go along. Yet there was no alternative: hemmed in as it is by mountains, the only way that Vail could grow was by tearing down and starting over.

Everyone assumed that Vail Resorts, which runs the ski operation and owns several key properties, would lead the process. When it was clear they wouldn’t, "we got tired of waiting," says Rob Levine, general manager of the Antlers condo complex in Lionshead. Levine managed to talk 66 of his 70 owners into a $22 million expansion and renovation project that added a wing and a new entrance in 2002. Manifestly improved, the new Antlers proved to be the first snowball in what would become an avalanche—not just in Lionshead, but in Vail Village too. American skiing’s most fabulous five square miles was about to undergo a revolution.

It needed to. while the town of vail was in the deep freeze, the culture of American skiing had been steadily changing. New shaped-ski, or parabolic, technology and increased grooming of runs have made skiing easier for beginners and Baby Boomers with aging knees. (Vail grooms twice as much terrain today as it did a decade ago.) High-speed lifts, meanwhile, have made it possible to get a full day’s skiing in before lunchtime—leaving the rest of the day free for shopping, dining, and all-around pampering.

Even more important, the client base for the skiing industry has gotten older. And wealthier. Bob Lazier’s generation long ago graduated from sleeping in resort parking lots to enjoying a lifestyle buffet of international travel, golf vacations, and second homes. What they don’t have is time. "We have to get it right the moment they walk in the door," he says. "Twenty years ago, people would come for a week or two. Now we have guests who come for three or four days. If one day is ruined because of a screwup, that’s a third of their vacation."

With skiers’ standards higher than ever, mere comfort doesn’t cut it any more. So, on a quiet sunny weekend last January, Vail was abuzz with construction. People descending the Bear Tree run were confronted with a spectacle worthy of a two-year-old boy’s dreams: above Vail Lodge, the resort’s signature hotel, two massive cranes gyrated over a pit teeming with construction vehicles, as workers hurriedly raised girders and smoothed concrete. Slated for completion this ski season, the Vail’s Front Door complex will be the centerpiece of Vail Resorts’ nearly $500 million improvement plan, including a ski services center, a spa and fitness center, and the Vail Mountain Club (a kind of country club for skiers). There are also 13 adjacent "lodge chalet" town houses, each three stories high and ranging from 3,700 to 5,200 square feet. Tucked between the ski slopes and Gore Creek, "they’re a key component, from Vail Resorts’ point of view," says senior project manager Jarvie Worcester, "because we can sell them outright as private homes." Yes, indeed: all were sold before completion for an average of $12.5 million.

A mile away, a maze of metal framing bundled in plastic loomed over the center of Lionshead. When the wrapping comes off in early January 2008, Vail’s old Gondola Building, a notorious eyesore, will be replaced by a 500,000-square-foot Bavarian-style complex called the Arrabelle at Vail Square, which will include condo units, a ski club (with valet service and exclusive lounge access), restaurants, a ski shop and other stores, as well as a hotel and spa where the room rates start at an unprecedented $850 a night. Intended to serve as the beating heart of Lionshead, Arrabelle complex will have a great room with a window looking onto the mountain and an ice-skating rink in the courtyard. There is even talk of Vail Resorts ditching the tarnished "Lionshead" nomenclature in favor of the cleaner, if anodyne, "Vail Square."

Vail Resorts’ involvement has lent momentum to the redevelopment program; altogether, more than a dozen projects are under way or already finished. This past summer, work finally began on an ambitious complex called Solaris, a mix of retail space and condos. Coming soon: a Four Seasons, slated to open in 2009, followed by a Ritz-Carlton. Eventually, the Lionshead parking lot will get made over to the tune of $600 million or more, helping to boost the "Billion Dollar Renewal" to something more like twice that. "People keep asking me when the redevelopment will be over," says the Antlers’ Levine. "I tell them, not in my lifetime."

He’s only half joking. Who knows how long the train could keep on rolling?Then again, since the locomotive is the real estate market, a crash could radically cut back on the number of buyers willing to fork over as much as $2,000 per square foot on a second, third, or fourth home. While fears of a market turn are publicly dismissed, in private some Vail insiders admit they’re keeping a worried eye on the market.

Vail’s difficulties and successes are of vital interest to the rest of the ski industry, for which condo development has long been the main driving force. As more and more aging, built-up ski resorts find themselves needing a revamp, Vail’s is the example they’re going to have to emulate. "Everyone’s trying to find that elusive solution, to create an environment with a sense of place where people are comfortable," says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood, Colorado.

For longtime Vail residents, however, the goal is much more simple. "Now," says Bob Lazier, "the town will finally equal the mountain."