Building a destination
Over the last three decades the grand plan for the Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort was never fully realized.
That is until now.
Northstar-at-Tahoe was born in 1972, when the Fibreboard Corporation first cut ski runs on Mount Pluto, which had been used as a tree farm since 1949. Since that time the resort has grown to 2,420 acres, 17 lifts, a small village, two on-mountain lodges, a cross country center and a neighborhood with approximately 1,300 single-family homes and condominiums.
Unlike most ski resorts in the west that lease land from the U.S. Forest Service, Northstar is located entirely on private land. That translates into a relatively free hand when it comes to developing the mountain.
Northstar was slated to have 3,700 housing units at full buildout, according to the original 1971 Northstar Master Plan. But along the way the Tahoe-area ski industry went soft and that master-planned community was never fully realized.
Fast forward to 2005 and throw in a company with experience building in Colorado ski towns and the “vision,” as Northstar representatives are apt to call it, is clear ” and near.
By the year 2022, almost 2,000 additional housing units will be built at Northstar as well as almost 100,000 square feet of commercial space, five new restaurants, an ice skating rink, a 255-room hotel and more ” all of it built by Colorado-based developer East West Partners, which is also developing the Old Greenwood and Gray’s Crossing subdivisions in Truckee.
To complement the new Northstar Village and Northstar Highlands projects, Booth Creek Ski Holdings, which owns five other ski resorts in California, New Hampshire and Washington State, will upgrade Northstar’s on-mountain facilities with two new high-speed chairlifts, reconfigure certain runs to improve traffic flow and will operate many of the businesses planned for the new Northstar Village.
In effect, Northstar will become a destination resort ” the kind of place Hal Clifford argued in the book “Downhill Slide” is ruining skiing.
But none of this will change the traditional character of the resort, maintains Tim Silva, Northstar’s general manager.
“It is the original vision of the resort,” Silva says of the new development. “It’s just an amplification of the original planning that was done here.”
That planning was state-of-the-art and forward-looking for the early 1970s, Silva says. The current development should only enhance the experience that Northstar’s customers have come to expect, he says.
“I think we remain pretty much what we always have been ” a regional destination. And by that I mean Northern California, Southern California to an extent, and obviously Northern Nevada is growing in importance to us. And I don’t see that changing,” Silva says.
“We’re in our thirty-third year, and just like those lifts that are slow and have older technology, our lodging product needs updating, the lift system needs updating and all that. It’s just the evolution of trying to stay up with demand, up with the competition, up with the market’s preferences.”
Roger Lessman, the managing partner of East West Partners’ Tahoe operations, has been in the ski industry for 25 years, and moved to Truckee five and a half years ago from Vail, Colo.
Lessman says Northstar’s development will bring it up to speed with trends that have already been realized at resorts in Colorado, Utah and other “destination” locations throughout North America.
“I think we’re trying to fill a niche, and maybe a demand, in the marketplace that has existed for a while,” Lessman says. “When we look at the kind of things that have been successful in Colorado and Utah over the years, [we asked] ‘Why haven’t those things been developed in this area?’ That’s the thing that struck us ” there hasn’t been a lot of new development. There hasn’t been a lot going on around here since the late ’70s, and so the marketplace has moved away from Lake Tahoe in some respects.”
Lessman hopes to recover some of that market share with the new village and on-mountain amenities being built at Northstar, but he also stresses the importance of East West’s other ventures in the Truckee-Tahoe area.
“The resort experience has evolved and changed over the last many years, quite frankly,” says Lessman. “When I first got into this business 25 years ago, it was primarily skiing related and you did everything oriented around skiing. And then there began to become a shift a number of years ago…
“People come to these places and they want a lot of other things to do: They like to shop, they like to hike, they like to bike; golf is a big component, and any kind of outdoor recreational activity is of big interest to them.”
Northstar already has a well-developed mountain biking trail system in the summer, and presumably the 100,000 square feet of retail and dining planned for the new Northstar Village is designed to take care of the shopping and dining needs of these new destination tourists.
In addition, East West will operate the Coyote Moon, Old Greenwood and Gray’s Crossing golf courses in Truckee, and will offer resort guests shuttle service to and from the resort and those courses.
“I lived in Vail for 25 years before I came here,” Lessman says when asked whether development ruins the character of a ski town. “Is Vail different than when I moved there? Yeah, you bet. But so is everything else in life. Is it worse? I don’t think so at all. Are there more people there? Certainly. Has the character of the town changed? Yes, because now it’s a year-round resort and businesses can be viable on a full-time basis.”
When he looks at Vail today, Lessman says he sees “a wonderful place.” In neighboring Beaver Creek, which East West played a large role in developing, there are shows on a weekly basis, cultural activities, fine dining and shopping.
“So has the place changed?” Lessman asks. “You bet. Is it worse? It depends on what your perspective is.”
Perspective is just what Jim Williams brings to the table. Currently the president of the board of the Northstar Property Owners Association, Williams has lived at Northstar year-round for five years.
According to Williams, the current homeowners at Northstar are cautiously optimistic about what the planned development will bring to the resort.
“All indication is that they are excited,” Williams says of the homeowners, of whom approximately 70 percent were in favor of the expanded base village.
“Northstar has always been a small, family resort. It’s easy to find your kids on the mountain… I think it’ll still retain a lot of that, but the ski mountain is going to get a little bigger,” he says. “It can only get so big ” we have a lot of terrain but not that much. But it’ll expand with the people and I think it’ll become more of a year-round resort.”
As Northstar Drive can turn into a parking lot on busy weekends, traffic and congestion are the biggest concerns for the current homeowner, Williams says. So the association successfully lobbied East West to include a 1,800-space intercept parking lot near the resort entrance at Highway 267 to accommodate day skiers and cut down on auto traffic in the middle of the village.
Besides the traffic issue, Williams said most residents are looking forward to having more activities and amenities within the resort itself.
Tom Mooers is the executive director of Sierra Watch, a group that serves as a public watchdog over proposed development in the Truckee-Tahoe region. As such, one might expect him to see Northstar heading down that downhill slide, particularly with the addition of almost 1,800 residential units.
Mooers, however, says he hopes the new village at the resort will turn out to be “part of the solution” for the Martis Valley as a whole.
“When we approach Martis Valley and the development that’s proposed for Martis Valley, we realize that we can’t say there’s not going to be any more growth,” Mooers says. “So part of our compromise plan for Martis Valley is what we consider a reasonable amount of development. And Northstar happens to be a location that, relative to other more pristine areas that don’t have any infrastructure, might make more sense for reasonable development.”
Sierra Watch has been and currently is in negotiations with East West Partners to set aside some of the profits generated by the sale of the planned residential units to permanently preserve other sensitive lands threatened with development in the Martis Valley.
Mooers’ nightmare scenario is to see all 6,000 housing units that the Martis Valley Community Plan actually allows be built.
“If Northstar can’t play a positive role and pay its own way toward more conservation, if it ends up just another string of developments that fill Martis Valley from the Truckee town line to the Tahoe basin, then clearly that’s not going to be something Sierra Watch would support, nor something that anyone could say is in the best interest of the Tahoe-Truckee region,” Mooers says.
Northstar, as it is today, has a strong reputation as a family-friendly resort with a couple of issues ” traffic and congestion being paramount among them.
Julie Maurer, vice president of marketing for Northstar and a 22-year Northstar employee, says that the new development going on at the resort won’t change what makes Northstar the resort it is today. It will actually provide an opportunity to improve upon some of the problems its customers and residents currently face, she says.
“I think having more people out of their cars with the ski-in/ski-out units, that’s going to help, and having the intercept lots and roundabouts is going to be a great improvement to what existed previously,” Maurer says.
Certainly the completion of what Silva calls the “original vision” of the resort will put Northstar on par with destination resorts such as Squaw Valley and Park City, Utah in terms of housing and amenities, and only time will tell what, if anything, will happen to the character of the resort.
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