THE BUZZ 2: Rice’s Apartments Become Reality

By on June 28, 2017

In an effort to address a mounting housing crisis, town council approves once contentious Sagebrush Apartments.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Tuesday’s Jackson Town Council meeting was a victory for restaurateur Joe Rice and for some of the valley’s workforce grappling with a historic housing crisis. Town council voted unanimously to approve Rice’s planned unit development (PUD) and sketch plan, allowing him to move forward with the construction of his 90-unit apartment complex at 550 W. Broadway, otherwise known as Sagebrush Apartments.

Rice’s battle with town council was hard-fought. Just to get to where he was on Tuesday, he and his team asked town council for a handful of exemptions and amendments to land development regulations (LDRs). The biggest, of course, was a text amendment that applies to all future apartment complexes of 20 units or more. The amendment exempts such apartment buildings from affordable housing standards, so that none of the units need be deed restricted “affordable.”

The sketch plan in front of council Tuesday didn’t immediately sit well with Councilman Jim Stanford. The applicants, he said, were asking too much from a council that has already granted them “many, many exceptions to the rules.”

“We passed two text amendments that would in essence clear the way for this project,” Stanford said. “They’re asking for a lot of things that no 100-percent deed-restricted project has asked for.”

Indeed, among other things, the order in which Rice asked to conduct business was out of the ordinary. Rather than present the council with a sketch plan, then come back in a few months to present a final development plan, Rice and his team presented the council with a detailed sketch plan in hopes of getting it approved out of the gate. Applicant Christine Walker of Navigate LLC, who has been working closely with Rice on the project since its inception, argued that because of the valley’s housing crisis time is of the essence, and the alternative review process would allow them to streamline development. “We want to break ground in late September,” Walker said at the June 19 council meeting. “We desperately need this housing.”

“People in this community who need housing don’t have more time,” Councilor Don Frank echoed. “This is an emergency that does not demand $4, $5, or $6 million of public money. We need to create housing for people, not talk about creating housing for people.”

Seven out of eight public commenters agreed with Frank. Liam Mulligan introduced himself as “probably the youngest person here today,” and someone who moved to Jackson after college not just to ski, but because he saw “opportunity.” The only thing in his way, he said, is a lack of affordable housing. Sagebrush Apartments, he said, are “what I need to start a career,” and have a stable place to plant his roots here.

Teton County School District trustee Bill Scarlet spoke to the hardships teachers in the district face. More than half of TCSD staff with fewer than 10 years of work in the district, he said, pays 40 percent of their income on rent, and that’s before taxes. Exit surveys reveal that 85 percent of staff that leave the district do so because of housing expenses. “We need more supply,” Scarlet said.

Elizabeth Hale’s was the only dissenting voice, speaking on behalf of wildlife. That section of Broadway, she said, is a main animal corridor where many mule deer are already killed yearly. “I’m concerned about one bottleneck on top of another bottleneck,” Hale said. “Cars going into town, and mule deer going north and south [across Broadway].”

Councilors and the applicant also had to work out parking and building design details. The buildings sit at the gateway to the community, Stanford and Mayor Pete Muldoon noted, so it’s important to really fine-tune the details. “It took months and months and months to get Redmond,” Muldoon told PJH. “We negotiated over every little detail. This is a big project, a gateway project. It’s worth trying to do it right.”

Councilman Bob Lenz called parking the “crux of this whole project.” The developers plan to build a parking lot with 90 paid-parking spaces, plus two guest spots. For a 90-unit complex with presumably more than one driver living in each, Lenz was concerned that the unit would be “way under-parked,” and people would resort to parking on the street or in neighboring lots.

Walker assured the council that property managers would diligently monitor and enforce parking, and ensure that tenants don’t interfere with neighboring properties. “I think we have adequate parking,” she said.

She pointed out that 80 percent of units will be one-bedroom or studio apartments. The building will also be close to town and public transportation, so tenants working in town likely won’t need a car anyway. Encouraging alternative modes of transportation, Walker said, is a selling point of their project proposal.

Project attorney Stefan Fodor emphasized that the developers have plenty of incentive to regulate parking themselves—$25 million worth of incentives, in fact. “If you have a parking problem, you’re not going to renew your lease,” Fodor said. It is in the developers’ best interest to solve the problem before it escalates.

Lenz introduced one more condition to the table: that the units can not be converted into condominiums. “I realize down the line that any future council can change that,” he said. But putting the condition in writing now “affects the way a future council acts. It influences how they think about it down the line.”

Developer John Shelton said that agreeing to such a condition would hurt him a little financially, as banks are less eager to loan under such conditions, but he was willing to comply if it meant moving the project forward. “I want this project to serve the people in here,” Shelton said.

Finally, town councilors voted unanimously to approve both the PUD and the sketch plan, with Lenz’s added condition. Despite his skepticism throughout the process, Stanford said the public benefit of the project outweighs any reservations he has left. “I truly want this project to be successful,” he said. “I thought there were things we could have done today to set it up better … but I’m willing to take a chance.

Frank and councilor Hailey Morton-Levinson echoed the support they had given throughout the project’s lifetime. “Healthy communities need to share in the burden of meeting community needs,” Frank said. To have 90 units built without any burden to tax payers, in the right location, is “astounding.” PJH

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