Kirkwood kicks it up a notch
Take about a 40-minute drive from South Shore down Highway 88, through Alpine County, to find something smack in the middle of a growth spurt — Kirkwood Mountain Resort.
Under construction right now: a swimming pool and gym, an ice rink and three multifamily residences. A 200-space parking lot is planned to go in this summer.
Housing at the resort is also being built at a blistering pace. Between last December and the coming one, 93 new housing units will have been built. Overall, plans call for the Kirkwood Village to expand from about 59 housing units to 250.
Tim Cohee, president of Kirkwood, said the economic boom in the late 1990s created a great demand for housing at the resort. The pace of construction at Kirkwood since then has been furious.
“You’re seeing the more rapid development happening now because there’s been a fairly good demand,” he said. “The mid- to late ‘9Os was a rocket ride.
“If keep up the pace we’ll complete the whole project, mountain and private development, in about seven to 10 years.”
Kirkwood aims to become more of an overnight destination resort, so it’s focusing on providing more housing, restaurants and other facilities, such as the gym, an outdoor wedding site and a new restaurant atop Caples Crest.
About 80 percent of its guests are day visitors, while 20 percent of skiers and riders spend nights at the resort. Cohee said the goal is to raise the number overnight visitors to 40 or 50 percent.
A plan approved in 1972 that allowed construction of Kirkwood limited its capacity to 10,800 visitors and 6,500 overnight guests. Those numbers will remain unchanged, according to Cohee. A peak day at the resort draws more than 7,500 skiers and riders.
What will change, in addition to ski-in, ski-out housing on the mountain and expansion at the Village core, is chair-lift capacity. A plan to expand facilities on the mountain calls for 60 percent increase lift capacity.
The mountain plan, now under review, would add a triple chair at Thimble Peak to access Thunder Saddle and another lift from the base of Kirkwood to the top of Caples Crest, a gateway to the back side of the mountain.
The plan also calls for upgrades at seven lifts and three new surface lifts: one to access Red Cliffs (off the Whiskey Slide trail), one at Lookout Vista (to access the east side of Thunder Saddle) and Covered Wagon (south of The Wave).
“We have one of the lowest trail densities anywhere,” said Ed Morrow, planning director. “The new lifts will keep it at its current level or lower it a bit. We’re adding 700 acres of new terrain. It’s terrain people already ski on, but right now they have to hike to it.”
Morrow said 2004 is the earliest a new lift will be built at Kirkwood. But lift improvements will likely begin before then.
The first lift to be upgraded is Hole ‘N’ Wall (No. 7). A high-speed quad may be installed there in the summer of 2003. It would cost about $2.5 million, and increase capacity to 2,400 people per hour from about 1,200.
But what about a lift near Glove Rock?
Plans developed 30 years ago called for a Martin Point lift, which would run from Timber Creek to the far north side of the mountain, about a mile northwest of the top of the Cornice Express. That lift is not included in the mountain plan.
“That’s way out in the future,” said Dave Myers, director of mountain operations. “It’s very low on our radar screen now.”
Resistance to change
Expansion plans at Kirkwood have drawn the attention of the public. In November 1999, public comment sent the resort back to the drawing board. People pointed out that the plan to develop the mountain was not integrated with the plan to develop housing.
The result is the Kirkwood Specific Plan, a report still under review that reflects what impacts the different development plans would have on each other.
Friends of Kirkwood, a group of homeowners at the resort, were vocal during the 1999 review process. Two members of the group, Reid Bennett and Standish O’Grady, could not be reached for comment for this story.
“In fact, we have people who have written letters of support who are members of the Friends of Kirkwood,” Cohee said. “But there is always going to be a person or small group of people who just don’t want it to happen. We’ll deal with that just like we deal with everything else.”
The Specific Plan presents a number of alternatives for development. Kirkwood now supports Alternative E. It would scrap plans to build a golf course, which according to Cohee, would have been woven into ski runs near Timber Creek.
The alternative also eliminates any parking north of Highway 88 and would decrease the amount of commercial space allowed at the resort from 215,000 square feet to 195,000 square feet. The preferred plan also would delete plans to build single-family homes on a ridge above 88. A cabin resort similar to Sorensen’s Resort is still expected to be built along Highway 88.
“We looked long and hard and as a concession to environmentalists and anti-development interest (we support E ) to show a cooperative spirit to everyone interested,” Morrow said.
Cohee echoed his sentiment.
“We think it does the best job balancing quality of life issues as well as quality of community,” he said. “The vast majority of people want more facilities and better facilities. It’s development that’s largely going to pay for that.”
A driving force
Cohee, a former triathlete, is clearly a high energy person. Father of five boys, last winter he was up by 5 a.m. every day recording the Kirkwood snow phone report.
“This is my first year in my 23 years of this business I’ve done it every single day,” he said. “I believe I’ve recorded well over 5,000 snow reports. I don’t know a more critical form of communication than making sure people are given accurate information; so that’s what I do.”
Cohee, 46, said when he heads out to ski Kirkwood he often heads to the Wall.
“My favorite terrain is groomed with a relatively steep pitch,” he said. “On the very best days, I head to the Wall and Olympic.”
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