Mammoth Real Estate Q&A — Village Versus Main Lodge?

This Mammoth Real Estate Q&A appears in the Memorial Day Weekend 2024 issue of The Sheet.

Q: All of the construction and demolition activity in the Village is a big change. It has been a long time since anything really happened up there. But do you think similar type development at the Main Lodge will end-up competing with the Village, or further stall development in the Village?

A: The demolition aspect of your question is the really curious thing about Mammoth’s future. Especially because demolition implies replacement or redevelopment, and the success of that hinges on the financing available to complete the project. Sometimes the demolition happens and the financing doesn’t. In the past decades, Mammoth has seen all sorts of redevelopment plans, hotel plans, etc. that never went anywhere. It is almost laughable. Most of these proposals get killed at the financing  stage—it’s either a turn in the economy, the project has inadequate economic projections for the lender, the cost of construction is too high, or something else.

We were recently reminiscing about all of the buildings that have been demolished in the recent past, and many of them were in anticipation of expansion at the Village. We used to have a Shakey’s Pizza and 31 Flavors, and a fondue restaurant. They seemed like perfectly good buildings, but they and others are gone and the ground has just been sitting there for years. And of course downtown there was the old Ocean Harvest building that was fully renovated, only to be recently  demolished. The more we think about it, the longer the list of demolished properties gets. Now they want to demolish the Main Lodge and everything around it. Alterra must be pretty confident they have the financing to develop the replacement buildings and facilities. This might be profound. 

But let’s get some perspective. The North Village Specific Plan was approved in 1991 and revised in 1994. The 1994 Plan was the Eldon Beck plan. He was the “father” of modern alpine (faux) villages like the one in Whistler and other mountain resort communities. But that was 30 years ago. Today, the Plan is less than 50% built-out and some properties have been repurposed and renovated instead of replaced, like the Mammoth Brewing property. The original Berger’s was going to be demolished, but instead we ended up with a modernized two-story Burgers.

Besides the unbuilt hotel sites in the Village, there are also unbuilt hotel sites within the Sierra Star golf course, at Eagle Base, and in theory in Snowcreek Phase 8 at the base of the Sherwins. Thats a lot of unbuilt hotel rooms. What is the likelihood of unbuilt hotel rooms at the Main Lodge site? All it takes is a big pile of money and about six years—a year of planning and about five years of construction at 9000 feet of elevation. 

The redevelopment at the Main Lodge site is destined to be exclusive, really exclusive. Or at least, that has been the vision and the plan. Parking from Chair 2 (The Mill) and up will likely become some sort of preferred parking (except for employee parking). Expensive parking is now one of the cherry-on-top profit centers in the entertainment world. The ski industry is catching on. But to create something highly exclusive is going to cost even more money, and time. This is also profound. 

But for now the Village is where it is at. Currently, 60% of the skier traffic entering the Mountain is at Canyon Lodge. As the Main Lodge demolition and redevelopment progresses, this traffic will need to increase (and Eagle too). And the Village Gondola becomes even more important. So do the uphill Gondola extensions beyond Canyon Lodge. Without these extensions, the skier and snowboarder “mobility” will become an even bigger nightmare. But all of this takes even more money.

The addition of the Limelight bed base to the Village will only improve the “critical mass” of the Village. Assuming that the bridge over Canyon Blvd. does indeed get constructed (it is in the approved plan), it will greatly improve the link from the Limelight and Westin to the Village plaza, and vice versa. Beck promoted the concept of a “processional effect” in a village, creating interest and walkways that make people curious and draw them from one spot to the next. The plaza is the hub. Additional hotels and development will only add to this effect.

The plaza special events, especially in summer, have become incredibly popular. And for good reason. It can be enjoyable sensory overload, and dare I say even family friendly. The Village condo hotel owners who financially support the events and Village common grounds are hopefully rewarded with increased rental revenues (and appreciation). That was the original theory of the plan. More hotels and more bed base creates even more synergy and will prove that the village concept and planning works. Too bad it has taken so long. The “beach” at the new Main Lodge area may have some of that on a sunny ski day, but it will never compete with the Village synergy. The last opportunity for that was when the Grateful Dead were canceled from playing at the base of Broadway.

One thing that stymied the Village evolution was another one of Mammoth’s infamous lawsuits and court decisions. Not as notorious as the Airport lawsuit, it was one of the Friends of Mammoth cases. Part of the Mammoth/Intrawest plan for the Village was to establish a California style redevelopment agency, which in the 1990s was a very popular (and abused) development mechanism.The North Village planning area included 38 properties and was comprised of some raggedy old motels, some really funky commercial (the original Footloose), and also included the old Mono County maintenance yard (pre Town incorporation). One criteria for establishing a redevelopment agency was “blight.” At the time the Plan was established, blight was a reasonable description for the area (and even today if you go look at the Berner St. property where the Residence Inn is planned). But it wasn’t like some gang infested run down ghetto.

A Village redevelopment agency would have kept most of the new property tax increment in the immediate district rather than the tax dollars flowing to Mono County. Controlling these new property tax dollars could have funded the ice rink/indoor events center/parking structure that is part of the Plan. It could have built workforce housing within the planning area. It could have brought geothermal heating to the plaza and walkways and eventually to the buildings. And plenty of other things. With all the extra dollars, it could have been amazing.

But by the late 1990s the redevelopment agency plan for Mammoth got out of control and also met some new headwinds. The size and scope of the local proposed redevelopment agency reached well beyond Village and now included most of town. If it had come to fruition, it would have starved Mono County of critical property tax revenues. 

At the same time, redevelopment agencies in the State had come under tremendous scrutiny for  the abuse of the blight concept. The Friends of Mammoth, with former Mono County Supervisor Andrea Lawrence in the lead, sued the Town and eventually put an end to all of it. It forever changed the course of the Village. And those were very different times from today. Up until the year 2000, real estate values in Mammoth remained very depressed. 

But Intrawest did complete the three core condo hotel properties; White Mountain Lodge, Lincoln House and Grand Sierra Lodge. These included the plaza areas and the ground floor commercial. They finished with the Westin Monache before pulling out of Mammoth development. The Village Gondola was completed and probably would have been impossible if the ski lift easements hadn’t been established within the uphill residential subdivisions in the 1960s. The Ski Area built the Mountain Center. The 80/50 Residence Club was only partially finished. But prior to the start of the Limelight, a span of nearly 15 years, very little was developed in the Village.

The Limelight construction is very impressive and the finished product is bound to be a significant addition to the Village in many ways. There are two more approved projects that have started demolition and with the hopes of getting into construction phase. And again, these additions will create even more synergy for the Village. And all of that may attract even more development. It works that way.

Meanwhile, recent condo hotel sales in the Village are at the highest per square foot pricing ever, especially for properties with special features like top floor units, corner units, view units, etc.. The condo hotel units in the Limelight will likely push those per square foot prices even more stratospheric. So 30 years later the Plan is succeeding. As for the Main Lodge redevelopment plan, nobody really knows how long it will take. The sport may evolve to flying hoverboards by then.

One interesting observation about demolition; Why are old commercial properties demolished and not the old condo projects of the same vintage? We even have some of the old motel district properties from the 1940s and 50s along Old Mammoth Road that today serve as valuable apartments. We have thousands of condos the same age as many of the buildings that have been demolished in recent years. For the most part it is because the HOA communities are compelled to maintain and upgrade properties. But it is an interesting contrast.

As long as Mammoth remains land locked and an increasingly popular place to be, somewhere in Mammoth’s distant future the older condo projects will be demolished too. The only question is will they be redeveloped as luxury properties or some sort of workforce housing? Or will we just own nothing and be happy?

Please remember why we celebrate Memorial Day. 

 

 

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