Corporate makeover: Town approves 3 residential housing opportunities

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – Even as two government-sponsored affordable housing projects sit idled, town council moved forward three private sector housing developments at its last meeting but only after closely scrutinizing a sidewalk, a tree, and an LLC.

Base Camp LLC

First to face approval at last Monday’s meeting was a 20-unit apartment complex slated for 640-650 S Glenwood—the open lots adjacent to the defunct Lift restaurant.

Councilman Jim Stanford initially inquired about whether the applicant would be amenable to extending a sidewalk on his or her dime.

“A sidewalk that ends midway is a sidewalk to nowhere,” Stanford said. “It is of little to no value. We are talking about a half a block of sidewalk.”

Can we make them? Stanford wondered.

No, came the short answer from town attorney Lea Colasuonno.

Base Camp LLC-owned parcels at 630-640 S Glenwood. Teton County GIS

“But there is nothing to prevent the developer from doing the right thing. Having the sidewalk would be a good thing,” Arne Jorgensen chimed in.

“Correct, but I can’t make it a condition of approval,” Colasuonno answered.

After asking the applicant’s representative—an architect named Elizabeth Whittaker from Boston—if the owner of the parcels, identified only as Base Camp LLC, would be amenable to extending the sidewalk, councilors then cut to the chase and tried to skip the messenger.

“I’m curious who the people are behind the LLC because people are coming into our community I’m hearing stories about certain individuals coming in buying up lots of pieces of property with the intent to develop them,” said councilman Johnathon Schechter. “If they are really proud of what they are doing they shouldn’t be anxious about hiding behind their corporations and if they aren’t proud to stand up and talk about what they are doing that strikes me as an interesting red flag.”

Councilwoman Hailey Morton Levinson took immediate exception to the line of questioning, calling it inappropriate and a direction that made her “uncomfortable.”

“I personally do not know who the actual owners are,” said planner Tyler Valentine.

Stanford backed Schechter up regarding his right to at least ask who the town was dealing with.

“Who is the owner?” Stanford asked, point-blank.

Elizabeth Whittaker, founder of Merge Architects. Town of Jackson

“I knew that was going to come,” Whittaker sighed, going on to explain they are wonderful, lovely, private people who visit often.

Again, the curious were cut off, this time by Mayor Pete Muldoon who said asking and knowing who applicants are could invite bias amongst the decisionmakers.

After wondering how snow was going to be removed, Stanford came back to the sidewalk and the trees that would have to be sacrificed for its construction.

“Why are we losing the trees? That seems to be the default anymore. When in doubt, cut it down,” he wondered aloud.

“I’m sad about the trees. We had to lose a few trees in the front,” Whittaker said. “They think the trees are going to die if we do the sidewalk around them. It doesn’t sound like it’s worth it.”

“Mature spruce trees are going to die from a sidewalk going around them?” Stanford shot back.

Valentine offered to save Whittaker but admitted he was not an arborist and was merely told by Parks and Rec that the trees would not like having a sidewalk around them.

“Somehow we manage to build other sidewalks close to trees. I don’t understand why we can’t try to save them,” Stanford challenged. “I’ve seen some of the certified arborists Parks and Rec uses and they sometimes don’t quite match expectations.”

Public comment included the standard NIMBY responses—this time from Corie Ryback, who said the project is too tall with too many units; and Jim Brungardt, who wrote the project is too big.

Ultimately, the project checked all the boxes and every councilor and mayor made the findings to approve the development by a 5-0 vote.

Teton Landings LLC

When councilors had a question for the applicant hoping to subdivide a one-acre parcel at 115 Nelson Drive into seven subdivisions, Sadek Darwiche immediately jumped up and identified himself as “the man behind the LLC.”

“In a small town, it’s nice to know who you’re dealing with,” Stanford answered with a smile. “What do you hope to do?”

Darwiche explained he was looking to get an idea of what he could build there. Maybe 5,000-sf homes in a style suited to east Jackson and along the lines of a Daisy Bush-type development. He admitted construction costs are so high now it is probably not something he could take on but maybe the next guy to own the property would have some entitlements in place if he could get them.

Council members had some discussion over parking a potential subdivision there—Stanford jokingly alluding to spots in east Jackson often scarfed up by boats and campers parked legally on the street.

“One of the ships from the ‘Nelson Drive Navy’ is parked on the street right now,” he said, referring to satellite imagery of the lot showing a large water vessel drydocked along Nelson Drive.

Outside of parking, councilors had few concerns about Darwiche’s bid to make a subdivision out of an odd-shaped parcel on Nelson, approving the request by unanimous vote.

1-acre lot that would be subdivided at 115 Nelson Drive. Teton County GIS

Sagebrush Investors LLC

There was no need to identify the man behind the LLC for Sagebrush Apartments. Local restaurateur and developer Joe Rice and his partner John Shelton have worn out a path to the town chambers for nearly three years trying to get their 90-unit apartment complex built on 550 W Broadway.

This time, the group was back for an amendment that would modify the HUD rider to the special restriction for 32 workforce rental units integral to the project.

After approval in June 2017, the project has been on hold as financing has proved difficult.

Artist rendering of Sagebrush Apartments. Courtesy. 

The latest HUD hang-up was billed as a “minor deviation request” by staff but Stanford didn’t care how minor it was; he was tired of seeing the applicant back for yet another allowance, pushing the project into a “too big to fail” category he felt pressured to approve.

“Every time we’ve agreed to something we make further concessions. We’ve watered down restrictions until they are not even restrictions anymore. And adjust we have. Innumerable times,” Stanford said. “Originally, this property was going to be mixed-use housing of 20 units and market which we extended zoning for. Then it was proposed this property would be an upscale hotel and it was insisted that this property be added to the lodging overlay which this council denied.

“Now we have this proposal. The town has contorted itself into a pretzel so many times to try to make this work that it’s nearly become a farce. I’ve said it before but you have to get off the train if you don’t like where it’s going and we’ve long since crossed that point where what’s being delivered is not what was promised.”

Morton Levinson, however, expressed a desire to look ahead rather than behind.

“We’ve been looking at this for a long time. Maybe Jim and I’s entire council terms,” Morton Levinson said. “I hear we’re frustrated but at the end of the day, this is a good project and one we should have in Jackson. Even with the different restrictions and whatnot. We see we do have to make these adjustments even though we want it to be perfect from the get-go that’s not reality. We have to adjust.”

Jorgensen conceded the process was not the greatest but, “The project we have in front of us is better than [previous iterations] as far as public benefits.”

Mayor Muldoon offered, “I don’t feel contorted about it. I feel like we’ve been working through the problems. I understand what the risks are and I’m comfortable with where the risks are, and they are acceptable to me. Today, this project still generally meets the goals I supported three years ago.”

The minor deviation to the PUD approved more than two years ago was approved by a 4-1 vote with Stanford opposed.

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