The potential sale of a beloved historic block home to Cafe Genevieve has prompted a renewed community interest in historic preservation.
The lot home to Cafe Genevieve, a building erected in 1910, Persephone Bakery and Healthy Being Juicery has been up for sale for $25 million for months by owner Gardner Capital Management. The allowed development potential on the site could be up to a 90,000-square-foot hotel.
Its for-sale listing attracted the attention of the Teton County Historic Preservation Board, which is concerned about the fate of the historic buildings on the property, as well as members of the public who value its old trees and open space downtown. Given the connection voters feel to the properties, preservation has become a campaign issue this election cycle. At forums and in casual conversations, candidates for town and county government have been asked to weigh in on what they think about historic preservation and the future of the Genevieve block.
Town Council candidate Jessica Sell Chambers said the Genevieve block is integral to Jackson’s community character. Chambers said she’d like to bring forward a specific purpose excise tax ballot measure to purchase and preserve the Genevieve lot, an idea supported by the three other council hopefuls as well.
“I think that would be ideal, and that would send a message just in general to the public and within the community that we value having these historic places or these community places,” Chambers said.
The Teton County Historic Preservation Board’s only real power, to impose a 90-day stay on demolitions, is “pointless,” she said, and the board should be further empowered to help preserve buildings in their original location.
Council candidate Jonathan Schechter agreed that the ideal solution, if he “had a magic wand to wave,” would be for the community to purchase the property for a “mixed-use public space,” perhaps through a SPET item.
“I think the community that loses part of its history becomes unmoored from its character,” Schechter said.
While he understands private property rights are important, Schechter said the block is an essential part of downtown’s charm and what makes it different and special compared with other places in the country. He said community character “doesn’t die in one fell swoop, but it dies by a thousand cuts and a couple big gashes.”
The redevelopment of the Genevieve block, he said, has the potential “to be a very big gash.”
When it comes to a historic preservation program, Schechter said the town and county should learn from other communities about what works and doesn’t.
Council candidate Arne Jorgensen, an architect, noted that the town and county’s regulations incentivize tearing down historic structures.
“It’s not even a neutral question,” he said.
Jorgensen supports a new regulation to exempt historically valuable structures from maximum density limits to encourage landowners to preserve them. He also said he’d consider an incentive that would allow landowners to build a fourth story in exchange for historic preservation and updating building codes to make preservation easier.
The only incumbent in the race, Don Frank, acknowledged that Gardner Capital has put forth a deal that would preserve some buildings off-site and others elsewhere in the town. He said a $25 million (or so) SPET would be big, but not inconceivable if the public wanted to pursue it.
“The public is not without options,” Frank said.
Frank also supports further incentives or development right trades, and allowances in building codes.
Among the county commission candidates, Independent Wes Gardner and Democrat Seadar Rose Davis favored looking at historic buildings on a “case by case” basis and taking into account property rights. Independent Sandy Ress also said each situation depends on the context. Republican Andrew Byron tipped his hat to the private sector for going out of its way to preserve buildings, such as the recent revitalization of the Teton Theater and Jackson Drug.
Democrat Luther Propst said the historic preservation ordinances must be strengthened.
“We need to take a good look at historic preservation ordinances around the West, and we need to come up with something that creates more of an incentive system for protecting those places in our community that have historic value,” Propst said.
He favored an approach fair to the landowner but that gives the community “a meaningful opportunity to engage in ways of protecting those buildings.”
Republicans Mary Martin and Mark Barron and Democrat Mark Newcomb, the only incumbent running for the commission, agreed that preservation is a priority and the town and county can make it easier with regulations and incentives.
“If you really want [preservation] you might ask your town leaders and your county leaders to make it easier and less expensive to go through the permitting process,” Barron said.