THE BUZZ: Woeful Imbalance

By on October 11, 2016

A new study zeroes in on the unhealthy, widening gap between residential potential and demand, and everything else that isn’t housing.

Left: Sound familiar? Demand for housing and available jobs are soaring in the JH simulated SimCity game. Middle: Jackson Hole  before the buildout. Right: Downtown virtual Jackson gets density and intensity. (Photo: Sim City)

Left: Sound familiar? Demand for housing and available jobs are soaring in the JH simulated SimCity game. Middle: Jackson Hole  before the buildout. Right: Downtown virtual Jackson gets density and intensity. (Photo: Sim City)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – But first, let’s play a game

What happens when you take a valleym, like this one, and shove all the empirical data you can find into a planning simulator of some kind, and then turn it on fast-forward to see what happens through the next century?

We did that.

Using SimCity 4, the city-building/urban planning simulation computer game by Maxis, we loaded a custom map of Jackson Hole into the software. Like the real Jackson Hole, our map showed a valley, a “hole,” hemmed in all sides by mountains with a river running through it.

First, we created the necessary infrastructure—power, roads, water/sewer. We fashioned reasonable facsimiles of outlying towns on the West Bank like Wilson and Teton Village. We built highways to Star and Teton valleys and set those bedroom communities up with mostly low-density residential and very limited commercial zoning.

Our valley had a few agricultural areas (iconic cattle ranches) and a lot of residential units (second homes) sprinkled into the woodsy mountainsides all around the periphery. Finally, we plopped in the Town of Jackson—zoned for tons of commercial, a medium amount of industrial, and very little residential.

We turned on the game and let it run. After a few decades, population stagnated. Residents were generally happy but new blood was not exactly flocking to this cyber community.

This virtual Jackson Hole looked like a 1940s Western version of the cowboy outpost we’ve all read about on microfilm editions of the Jackson’s Hole Courier. There were a few anticipated grievances from the “sims”—traffic and demand for housing, for instance—but life seemed fairly idyllic and peaceful, with an overwhelmingly positive mayoral approval rating.

Then we decided to mess around with a few of the settings to make our Jackson Hole more reflective of the modern day version we all know.

We created what amounted to Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the Elk Refuge by making gigantic “community parks” and “playgrounds out of parcels girding the valley. We threw in a bigger airport than the game’s “advisors” suggested we needed. We then piled on a half-dozen “tourist traps” (that’s actually what SimCity calls them), three area sports stadiums (the game didn’t have ski resorts), and an internationally recognized landmark (we substituted the Great Pyramid for the Tetons). Lastly, we cut taxes to hardly anything.

When we turned the game on again, we were shocked how fast we broke it. At fast-forward speed, our community crumbled to nothing in minutes. So we slowed it down to learn just what wrong.

Right away land values had skyrocketed. The new people who flooded into our simulated valley immediately began screaming for things they wanted and complained nonstop about what they hated. They needed places to live. Traffic was ridiculous. The mayor’s approval rating crashed.

We tweaked residential zoning slightly to allow for increased density in downtown Jackson. Those zones were built out and filled in immediately by simulated citizens. And, likewise, the crime rate soared along with pollution problems, increased commute times, and a bloated city budget straining to keep up with the growth.

In 30 years, expenditures outpaced revenue and the mayor had been run out of town. At the 40-year mark, the city was bankrupt and the population in decline. By 50 years, chronic recession and urban decay had made the scenario unplayable. Quality of life had tanked, and our virtual valley was ruined. Game over.

Balancing act zoning

Last week, the Conservation Alliance released the results of a land use study the organization had been working on since spring. The report’s subhead screamed “OUT OF BALANCE,” referring to the county’s commercial-to-residential inventory ratio. For most of the valley—including the informed electorate and those simply suffering the ill effects of a lack of housing—it was not surprising news.

But for others it was an eye-opening, empirical data exercise that returned shocking findings even more dire than anyone thought: The inventory found four times more potential for commercial development (43-year supply) than residential (10-year supply). At current population projections and market demand it shows a community out of balance—“Way out of balance,” said JH Alliance’s executive director Craig Benjamin.

“Until we correct this imbalance, we will struggle to advance the vision and objectives of our Comprehensive Plan, especially in regards to our goals of housing our workforce locally, reducing our community’s climate and environmental impacts, and not exporting our impacts to neighboring communities,” added Mary W. Gibson, Alliance Community Planning Director. “This imbalance between residential and commercial land supply is a driving factor behind our community having too much commercial and lodging development compared to housing.”

Rich Bloom has notable fluency with the Comp Plan process and outcome. He also served 18 months on the Blue Ribbon Panel for Workforce Housing launched from the Housing Summit and Housing Action Plan. He said the Alliance’s inventory report “finely quantifies what the community has known for years: that we have way too much low-wage job producing lodging and commercial potential.”

Bloom suggested two courses of immediate action should include freezing any commercial or lodging potential in the town and county at current levels, and even exploring the conversion of some commercial/lodging potential into affordable workforce housing rentals.

Bloom and Benjamin also expressed concern for two looming ski resort expansions planned for Snow King and at the Village. Nearly 600,000 square feet of commercial potential exists at Snow King, while some 400,000 square feet of latent commercial lies untapped at Teton Village.

Long-range planner Alex Norton said he would like to talk to the Alliance in the coming days about their inventory report. To Norton, the results indicate a gap between commercial and residential zoning that no one is surprised by, “But some of their fundamentals, methodology and numbers are pretty radically different than those we’ve been working with since 2009,” he said. “The biggest takeaway form the report is ‘What happened to those 7,500 units?’ We’ll definitely talk to them to try and understand where they came from.”

Norton pointed in particular to what seemed to be the Alliance’s undercount of residential by some 7,500 units—a discrepancy that could be explained by the recent LDR updates for rural areas of the county. Still, Norton admits there is an imbalance. “In the end, many of the recommendations of the Alliance are still those the planning staff has had for years. Obviously, we need to find places where residential can be built.”

The Alliance inventory report was researched and authored by Alliance community planning intern Bentley Regehr, who conducted a similar study for the Truckee-Tahoe region. It was peer reviewed by Todd Chase (FCS Group) and David Viehman (JHRE). PJH

Send comments to

About Jake Nichols

You must be logged in to post a comment Login