THE BUZZ: No Spin Zone

By on May 10, 2016

Studying the small business side of the town zoning battle.

The Virginian Apartments will undergo renovation, displacing an estimated 300 residents. (Photo: google earth)

The Virginian Apartments will undergo renovation, displacing an estimated 300 residents. (Photo: google earth)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – What is it about this community? What disease has it caught that causes it to care so passionately, so intensely about practically everything? That zeal cuts both ways. Town and county planners say they appreciate the engagement from the public. But sometimes it never stops.

Land Development Regulations (LDRs) for District 2 in Jackson’s downtown core are headed to first reading after three years in the making. After a contested process, the regulations call for a freezing of commercial and lodging potential at buildout numbers targeted by the 1994 Comp Plan. The final draft is a lukewarm compromise hammered out to appease mainly the anti-growth, pro-housing factions, who grew noisiest in the ninth inning. They believe not adding anything that isn’t potential housing will at least make some strides toward sheltering the valley’s workforce.

But will it? And will anyone build rental apartments or low-cost townhomes in downtown Jackson?

A growing contingent of business owners is unhappy with the finalized LDRs for D2. They warn elected officials that pushing housing on the town at the expense of commercial and lodging would cause downtown decay and urban sprawl. Many business owners take exception at commercial being targeted as a scapegoat and vilified as anti-housing. They say, with better tools and a more streamlined process, they can revitalize downtown with shopping, dining, and office space and at the same time build more workforce units than the government can.

In truth, it’s not fair to label either side as for or against housing. All feel the pain of that issue. Many nonprofit groups and individuals are adamantly opposed to large hotel chains like a Marriott, and see them as job-multipliers that exacerbate Jackson’s housing problem. Small business owners don’t like them either. They are killing small family businesses and they don’t take care of their workers the way local employers do, small business owners claim.

Interested community members like Pete Muldoon and Jorge Moreno challenge the notion that commercial and lodging developments will help the valley’s housing crisis in any way. Organizations like the Conservation Alliance, headed by Craig Benjamin, and the Community Resource Center, led by Mary Erickson, have pushed a prioritization of new residential projects above any development that does not put more housing inventory into the town and county.

Still, the two sides have more in common than they might think. It’s the mode of transportation that’s being argued. Google Maps or Waze—how do we get to where we want to be? The Planet has focused on many of the folks who are now displaced from the valley’s housing emergency. So what do pro-growth small business owners have to say?

Moving at the speed of life

Government has never been accused of reacting quickly to community needs. The long, grinding process of finalizing LDRs for just one of the five town districts mirrors what developers say they have to go through to get anything on the ground in the town or county.

Planning director Tyler Sinclair admits the journey has been an arduous one. “Planning is often a slow, tedious process [looking] from the outside, but we’ve been committed to taking our time, getting it right, and having as many eyes on it and voices in it as we can,” he said.

After ratification of the Comp Plan in 2012, it’s taken town planners until now to propose the first set of correlating LDRs for District 2. The downtown core district is defined as the area where primarily the highest density residential uses will be envisioned with limited single-family detached units. It is also slated for 18 percent of the 5.1 million square feet of potential commercial/lodging in the county—of which roughly 2 million latent square feet is still undeveloped in town.

Some say that’s not enough.

John Stennis, member of the town planning and zoning commission since 2010 and associate at Gilday Architects, has been in the thick of it for six years. He says it’s still hard to get his head around it. Like some, he believes the downtown zoning discussion was hijacked by anxiety over the homeless and the view that any commercial is bad for car campers.

“The District 2 discussion kind of got derailed by housing issues. My personal opinion: I would say we are definitely working against our own interests. Maybe that’s what the community needs right now to feel good about itself in the LDR process,” Stennis said. “But I hope we can come back and revisit D2. There is a lot of unfounded fear. Community-based organizations that pushed the negative campaign against the LDR process in D2, and the whole housing issue, and the backlash against commercial development that is going to create even more housing problems. We are unfairly punishing new businesses.”

Business owner and hotelier Jim Darwiche, who just unveiled Jackson’s newest lodging facility—the Jackson Hotel, believes local businesses are being singled out to solve the community’s housing burdens. “For us to take economic incentive and choke it, we are not helping. Most of the area we are talking about is within a 5- or 10-minute walk to things downtown,” Darwiche said. “We never learn from the past. They are going to choke this place with housing. It scares the hell out of me.”

Former mayor Mark Barron, who took a decidedly pro-growth stance while in office, has been resolute about giving commercial a chance in downtown Jackson. He called the LDR revision for D2 an over-dependence on 22-year-old zoning.

“Sadly, I empathize with this workforce housing issue. I struggle with it on a daily basis,” Barron said. “I came here in 1975 and I camped. I lived in my car because there was a workforce housing shortage. There has always been a workforce housing shortage. It doesn’t make it right. But it’s a desirable place to live. And it’s a very tough place to grow your commercial business.”

Barron adds that he and his wife, Ruth Ann Petroff, have taken care of their employees with employee housing renting for “way below market rate.” To continue that, he says he needs better tools and more commercial potential. “We need solutions that can’t depend on the public sector to try to do everything for us,” he said.

Hotelier and businesswoman Clarene Law also said she understands the suffering of those struggling to find housing. “It touches my soul to see what’s happened to some of these people, but I don’t think we should just go back to the plan we had 20 years ago,” she said. “I don’t want the town to become just investor properties. We have to have the tools to redevelop.”

Max Chapman, owner of Snow King Resort, asserts restrictions were causing a 20-year stalemate in renewal projects downtown that could bring vibrancy and housing. “This council has done a disservice to this community. [They] are going to encourage development that is not going to encourage housing,” he said.

Empty toolbox

Developers say it’s about flexibility, yet in the past they’ve complained about predictability. Sinclair believes he and his staff have come up with regulations for D2 that better define what developers can do and streamline the process. Still, developers say too many hurdles and dollar signs jam the path from application to building permit.

“We are trying to build an 82-unit apartment complex in Jackson Hole right now. It is absolutely ridiculous how long it takes to get approvals,” said restaurateur Joe Rice. “Everybody says ‘workforce housing,’ ‘workforce housing.’ But I’ve seen no incentives out there. No one is trying to cut timeline and fees, or partner with us. There has been nothing from the town. It’s too cumbersome.”

Rice has a strong track record of housing his own employees. He says he can do better if regulations were relaxed a little.

“We are a huge proponent of providing workforce housing for our people. We’ve led by example in this. I think it’s an employer’s responsibility to look out for their employees and to take the onus on themselves to help with housing, but you’ve got to give us the tools to do that,” Rice said.

While Sinclair insists flexibility has been built in to the process, including an across-the-board 20 percent adjustment variation formula, Stennis, for one, would like to see more spot zoning and a return of the PMUD (Planned Mixed-Use Development) tool.

“Most of the useful buildings in town were built using planning tools which gave developers flexibility,” Stennis said. “I personally don’t fear the PMUD. Successful developments like Daisy Bush were done with a planned development tool. It’s been a very successful tool. It has provided housing and different amenities the community needs and wants. And you do have a lot of control over PMUD. The tools are going away. You have to give the community more powerful tools. Without those we are left in a worse place than we are now.”

Property owner Jay Varley, who sold one parcel in town to make way for a new Marriott, said, “Current LDRs have not encouraged redevelopment and neither will the proposed District 2 LDRs. We would like to build more housing as part of mixed-use projects but zoning is not helpful.”

Large land owner Kelly Lockhart agrees.

“You have a housing crisis. It didn’t happen overnight. There have been a lot of people who want to build houses but haven’t been able to. District 2 is broken. We have to fix it,” Lockhart said. “I think that the town core really does need to be reserved for tax revenue so you can provide goods and services. You can’t do that any place else. If we can get some residential in downtown that’s great but we are not going to get 2,800 units. Under the current plan you are not going to get any housing downtown but in fact you are going to get urban decay. How you fix it is bring back the PMUD.”

But redevelopment is happening to some degree and it has caused immediate strife. Some 300 residents are being displaced and added to the growing pool of homeless with the renovation of the Virginian Apartments. The complex will undergo a facelift—and presumably cater to a higher-end clientele in the end—in the meantime, the redevelopment is already aggravating an emergency housing situation.

Chamber of Commerce president Jeff Golightly said decrepit old buildings downtown will stay that way until better tools and incentives are offered to developers.

“Having only 18 percent of the [non-residential] supply in the downtown core means that the vast majority of it is going to move away from downtown and will end up causing us to get in our vehicles and drive back and forth to it,” Golightly said. “Growth is coming either way. The question is where do we want to see it? I thought it was ‘Town as Heart?’ This will create sprawl.”

Solutions?

Planning commissioner Christen Holt would like to see an increase in FAR (Floor-Area Ratio, or how big a building is allowed to be) and the ability to build four stories.

Rice says that is one of his biggest complaints.

“What’s the difference between three or four floors? I’ve never understood that. If we could put four floors in a 46-foot building for more housing, why can’t we do that?” Rice wondered.

Town planners increased max height of downtown buildings from 42 to 46 feet, as long as the top floor was set back enough to reduce the feeling that large high-rises were cramming town streets.

Banker Jeff Fueschel said four floors would go a long way toward making projects pencil for developers. “At the end of the day, what you have to decide is whether or not what you are doing is economically viable. If you are going to allow 46 feet then allow four stories. That’s the way you get the density to drive down the cost to allow and accommodate the additional housing,” he said. “If you are not going to do that you are fooling yourself. If you look around at some of the communities that Jackson Hole competes with, you can see four- and five-story buildings that are what it takes to be economically viable.”

Town councilman Don Frank agrees, saying the idea that planners are restricting 46-foot buildings to three stories gives him heartburn.

Councilman Jim Stanford, however, says the community doesn’t want anything taller than three stories. “I’m going to stick with three stories. I don’t know it’s in our purview to rollback one of the main premises of the 2012 Comp Plan,” he said. “There were a lot of people that wanted only one or two stories, so three at 46 feet is a compromise.”

Fueschel also believes a trailer park option would be helpful.

“You have to be able to build a product that is under $125,000 that serves the 18 to 30 thousand annual income earners if you are truly going to try to solve housing rather than just talk about it … and I’ve seen it talked about for the entire 35 years I’ve been here,” Fueschel said. “In one fell swoop, in one large trailer park, you can provide as much housing product as this community has provided in the last 12 years. We’ve danced around that issue, and for some reason Teton County is the only county I know of in the state of Wyoming that doesn’t have that arrow in it’s quiver. What we are building is too costly for a lot of the people that live and work here.”

No easy fix

Stennis says, given that the 1994 and 2012 Comp Plans both call for a doubling in population in the town and county, nonresidential potential should also double and if not in the downtown core, where do we want people to shop and work?

“For 20 years staff has thought that District 2 was mostly a commercial zone and wouldn’t have to deal with housing. Downtown was not ever really intended to deal with our housing problems. Core should be commercial and office space for locals, not just tourists,” Stennis said. “There are other zones in town that are more specifically residential zones and the council has talked about accessory residential units there.”

Stennis adds that nonresidential in District 2 is also needed to shore up the town’s gateways, especially the north entrance where little has been done outside of the efforts of developer Jerry Johnson at the Rustic Inn property. “It doesn’t look like a world-class resort town coming in from North Cache,” he said.

“They call the 2012 Plan adaptive but it’s essentially what we’ve already had. It’s not a significant enough change and I think it’s unrealistic. It hasn’t netted us any redevelopment over the last 20 years, in fact we might have lost some buildings over that time,” Stennis said. “It’s taken us 20 years to come up with LDRs for District 2 and through it all we keep changing electeds and losing of continuity. In my opinion we need to just bust out a complete draft of LDRs; get it done now, and not this district-by-district approach.” PJH

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