The commercial divide
Some town candidates say there’s too much new space for business, others say too little.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: June 25, 2008
The nine candidates for Jackson Town Council vary greatly on their ideas about commercial development in the town.
Some candidates say the town needs to limit further commercial growth, some say leaders don’t need to limit growth but need to change the impact fees and mitigation associated with it, and others do not think there’s much commercial growth at all.
Development watchdogs in the valley are increasingly turning their attention to commercial development in both the town and county.
The Teton County Board of Commissioners will hear proposed moratorium on all commercial development in the county on Tuesday. The proposal has already passed the Teton County Planning Commission.
Teton County Planning Commissioner Tony Wall has said commercial development in Jackson, particularly redevelopment under the town’s controversial planned mixed-use development tool, is driving the need for more employee housing in the valley and is adding to the current housing deficit.
The Jackson Town Council will consider a moratorium on mixed-use developments at a meeting in the coming weeks at the request of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. A date for that meeting has not been set. The tool was initially created to encourage developers to build projects that allowed people to live, work, recreate and shop in the same in neighborhood. It allows taller, more dense buildings but in return asks developers to put all their parking and employee housing on-site. It has become increasingly controversial as developers have turned to the tool almost exclusively to maximize the scope and value of projects.
Nine candidates are running for two town councilor seats. The field will be winnowed to four at the Aug. 19 primary, and voters will elect two on Nov. 4 to fill four-year terms.
Burson is one of the candidates who thinks the current council is already approving more commercial projects than is sustainable. Burson says housing stock in the town cannot keep up with the creation of new jobs, and the redevelopment to four-story buildings is not consistent with the character of Jackson.
“There is way too much commercial development being approved right now,” he said
One way to limit further redevelopment of commercial projects would be to stop granting zone changes to allow commercial projects in historically residential areas. However, the vast majority of current redevelopment projects take place within existing commercial zoning. In addition, Burson said he would like to see the overall housing mitigation rate, which currently dictates that employers house 15 percent of their peak number of employees, raised to 30 percent.
Within Jackson, Burson would like to do away with the mixed-use regulation, the candidate said.
“I think it should just be straight commercial or straight for housing,” he said. “I don’t really like to see [mixed developments]. I think some are OK – the ones we have starting out now, but that is it.”
Lee disagreed with Burson, saying that having a mix of uses was integral to having smart growth within town limits.
“I am not advocating wholesale redevelopment, but some redevelopment is going to occur,” Lee said, “and the more we can keep the people who work in the community close to where they work, the more we as community benefit from that.”
Though he likes mixed-use development, Lee is not a fan of the regulation that allows it in town because it is too subjective.
“A developer can adapt to whatever rules you give them as long as they are clear and consistently enforced,” he said. “As a community we need to write regulations that are clear about what we want to achieve.”
The first regulation Lee would like to change is the housing mitigation rate, raising it to at least 40 percent immediately and then possibly further in the future.
Lee said he was currently unhappy with commercial development in town, not because of the scope of it, but because it was contributing little to the community.
“We should not be in a rush to redevelop, but I feel that way because what is being approved is not meeting our stated community objectives in the 1994 comp plan and what is coming out in surveys,” he said. “My feeling is that if we write the regulations in such a way that we are meeting community objectives, we will as a natural consequence slow the pace of development.”
Lasley also thinks the town has been approving too much commercial development and would like to see a slowdown in commercial approvals.
“It might take both a cap or some sort of limit on the number of permits issued and in addition evaluating the needs of the community and as a governing body deciding we can’t go this way any longer,” she said. “Specifically, some of the large hotels coming in under the PMD are creating extra jobs, and town is not having adequate mitigation for affordable housing or employee housing included with those.”
Lasley said she would like to see the employee housing mitigation rate increased to at least 25 percent and likely higher.
She would also like to scrap the mixed-use regulation altogether and replace it with a more predictable tool that considers a mix of uses in an entire neighborhood rather than on a single parcel of land.
“I am not sure we are gaining anything from these flexible zoning tools,” she said. “I am not sure those extra densities warrant what is happening as far as loss of adequate transportation or need for additional housing.”
Tabatabai, one of two incumbents in the race, said he thought there was too much commercial development in the valley but said that pressure was coming more from the county than the town.
“We do not have the infrastructure – the housing,” he said. “The commercial development is putting us in this mess.”
Among the town councilors, Tabatabai has long been the harshest critic of the mixed-use regulation and said he does not feel it is being used in the right contexts because developers are using it on smaller and smaller parcels, and proposing larger projects. He would like to see the tool replaced with something less flexible and more predictable.
“The less discretion you leave in there, it is more user-friendly and people know what is expected of them,” he said. “The less discretion, the better off this ordinance becomes.”
Obringer, Tabatabai’s counterpart on the council, said he believes the town needs a flexible zoning tool to address the needs, and potential, of large irregular lots, but Obringer does not think the current regulation is working.
“I don’t think using the PMD in town has worked well in the gridded lots,” he said, “because what people like about the core of town is that it happens in a lot by lot development pattern; look at the Square.”
Obringer disputed other candidate’s assertions that there has been a wave of commercial development. In his 16 years on the town council and planning commission, there have only been about 10 projects that were actually built within the core commercial areas in Jackson, he estimated. But he did think the potential for commercial development needed to be curbed.
“We do have too much commercial zoning probably,” he said. “I would suggest we do and it’s not in the appropriate place and it has higher density in inappropriate places.”
Instead, Obringer said it was second-home development in the county that was driving job creation and the dearth of affordable housing in the valley.
“It would shock me if the thing we didn’t need to get control of was the number of housing units going up in the county because that is what is generating jobs,” he said. “These big houses are in my mind the driving force for the need for service-level employees.”
Miles, a current Jackson Planning Commission member, said he thought the rate of commercial growth was appropriate but the town needed to require better buildings, especially in mixed-use projects.
“There is a need served by the PMD tool and the flexibility is important to that tool,” he said. “To just eliminate that tool without having something to replace it is a bad idea, but I am pushing heavily to amend it.”
A new mixed-use regulation should require more review of the architecture, get a better, more locally oriented mix of uses, require more housing and encourage sustainable building practices, he said.
Miles said the rate of employee housing mitigation should be raised to 25 percent and the town should not allow developers to use credits to avoid meeting their housing and parking requirements.
Unlike Tabatabai and others who have criticized the application of the mixed-use designation to small lots, Miles said it is only right to provide single-lot owners the same avenues to develop as large landholders.
“Why are we giving the person who owns three lots more ability to develop their property than the person that owns one lot?” he asked. “I think there is a fairness issue there. If you can park the project and meet the goals of the PMD, what is the difference?”
John Bickner Jr.
Of all the candidates, Bickner was perhaps most comfortable with existing regulations.
He did not believe there was too much commercial development approved recently in town, he said.
“Honestly, there hasn’t been a whole lot of recent commercial development in north Jackson,” he said. “The recent buildings that have been built in town have been on Gill Street and they will have to show their benefit to the community. It will have to be seen how those flow.”
Bickner said he did feel that regulations applied to commercial developments by planning staff could be more consistent, but said he was comfortable with the flexibility inherent in the PMD regulation.
“It would be case by case,” he said. “Some people are trying to squeeze too much into too small a project but I think some of the nicest projects we haven‘t seen yet. I think there will be some nice projects in town with some good community benefit.”
Bickner also said it was important to encourage mixed use.
“I think most buildings need to be mixed use,” he said. “That is just basic common sense.”
Unlike almost all other candidates in the race, Bickner said he did not want to increase the employee housing mitigation rate and wanted to look at alternatives to requiring housing mitigation of new developments altogether
Wood said he did not like the current mix of uses the town was getting in its commercial development under the mixed-use regulation.
“We are developing maybe not too much, but maybe the wrong kinds of businesses,” he said. “Each business and commercial development needs to be weighed on what it is going to contribute to the community and what they are going to do to house their workforce.”
That evaluation, Wood said, would have to take place on a case-by-case basis, much the way it does now, though he does not support the way the mixed-use regulation has been applied.
“I like the idea of the PMD as far as a planning tool but feel it has been abused the way it is written now,” he said. “We can’t be exploiting a planning tool to benefit realtors and the real estate industry.”
Unlike other candidates, Wood said he would first like to explore how to keep a healthy stock of affordable rental units in town before trying to raise the employee housing mitigation rate
“My number one issue is affordable rentals above affordable housing to purchase,” he said. “We have to have the bottom rung on the ladder before we address the second or third rung; we have got to have affordable rentals.”
Tim Sullivan did not return calls for comment.