Downtown historic preservation

Town officials will seek to define “Western character” as they rezone Town Square and find ways to promote historic preservation around Jackson.

For a town that cares so deeply about preserving its Western character, Jackson offers almost no explanation of what that means.

Now, as officials prepare to rezone Town Square for the first time in a quarter century and explore historic preservation tools for the first time ever, they’ll try to safeguard a heritage vulnerable to redevelopment.

“We all have strong emotion around the Town Square,” Planning Director Tyler Sinclair said. “But we really have very little from a regulatory perspective as to what the future of the Town Square will look like.”

By “Town Square,” he is referring roughly to the “block faces” around the literal Town Square and blocks to the immediate north and west. The boundaries of that area, called District 1, aren’t precise. Part of the rezoning will decide what should be included.

As it stands, the town’s design guidelines are fairly broad and generic and provide few specific standards for Jackson’s most iconic buildings (with the notable exception of restricting them to two stories).

The guidelines do appeal to “Western character,” but only as a vague concept, leaving the practical application to property owners and architects — unsurprising in a state with a tradition of robust property rights.

There are several stages of review for any major development. The Town Council has the final say, and before that the Planning Commission and Design Review Committee. But without prescriptive rules for what kind of design meets the standards of Western character, officials have no objective basis for denying many proposals.

“You could paint those buildings any color you want and there’s nothing we could do,” Principal Planner Paul Anthony said. “Maybe the DRC would scrunch up their nose and say ‘I really don’t think hot pink is our Town Square,’ but we don’t have any rules about that.”

The town is pursuing two distinct goals: first, regulations specifically for the Town Square zone, which have not been updated since 1994; second, broader regulations to promote historic preservation throughout town.

Because the idea of historic preservation is often entwined with the idea of Western character, and because both lack a regulatory underpinning, the town is combining the two processes.

The Historic Preservation Board has authority to delay demolition permits by 90 days if it deems a building historic, but beyond that single power, it is toothless. As Sinclair put it, the most cherished structures in town are “one demo permit away from being taken down. That shocks some people.”

Katherine Wonson, chair of the Historic Preservation Board, remembers when she realized the limitations of other groups that review development proposals. During one of their meetings, she recalled “heated debate” about whether a roof porch over a sidewalk fit with Western character, but the argument revolved around subjective opinions.

“There was no study anyone was pointing to, and I became patently aware that we had never studied this,” she said. “It was a real rude awakening.”

In February her board spent about $32,000 to hire a consultant to study historic preservation regulations and conduct public outreach to determine what Western character means to the community.

Then, earlier this month, the town joined the preservation bandwagon. The council approved nearly $140,000 for a Boulder, Colorado group, Winter and Company, to gather opinion and eventually draft new regulations and incentives for Town Square and historic preservation in general.

Though most eyes glaze at the mention of zoning and land development regulations, Anthony said discussions about Town Square and historic preservation can rise above the esoteric jargon that would typically scare people off.

“You don’t have to be a planning guru or someone who’s read from front cover to back cover everything we’ve produced,” Anthony said. “This is one that everyone really can show up to and participate.”

The first public workshops are scheduled for noon and 6 p.m. June 10 at the Grand View Lodge, and an online survey will be available for those who can’t make the workshops. Sinclair said he hopes to survey tourists as well.

“Our Town Square is pretty special,” he said, “to all of us who live here, but also for the millions of visitors from across the world.”

The Town Square rezone will mark the end of a seven-year process to update land development regulations for all of Jackson. Districts 3-6, which the town completed last summer, took precedence for the sake of creating new high-density residential zones to stimulate workforce housing.

And for some reason, “whether by luck or circumstance,” Sinclair said, Town Square has not faced much pressure for redevelopment. The Center Street Hotel under construction is the first wholesale change to the external appearance of a building in years.

But “luck” is the keyword. Sinclair guessed it has a lot to do with the procedural challenges of redeveloping and the fact that many Town Square buildings have been under the same ownership for years or decades.

But that doesn’t change the reality: Under different circumstances the owners could make character-eroding changes. In other parts of town, historic buildings have often seemed threatened, including in areas that arguably belong in the Town Square zone.

Most recently, public outrage arose over the prospect of the historic cabins on the Genevieve block being replaced by a hotel. And in 2017, when the Sweetwater block was listed for sale, preservationists panicked at the thought of losing a century-old cabin on the site.

Both were saved by purchasers with intentions to preserve. But as Wonson said when the new owner of the Sweetwater decided to restore it, “we just got lucky.” In other cases over the years, they weren’t so lucky.

The Historic Preservation Board has long pushed for stronger preservation tools. Many other Rocky Mountain resort towns with historic architecture have committed to preservation, Wonson said, adding that “we are definitely lagging behind our peer communities.”

Now, with historic buildings in limbo left and right, Wonson said, the new regulations will arrive not a moment too soon.

“We are at the tipping point where if we lose any more, I don’t think we can really tout this town as an Old West town,” she said. “There just won’t be enough of it.”

Contact Cody Cottier at 732-5911 or town@jhnewsandguide.com.

Cody Cottier covers town and state government. He grew up with a view of the Olympic Mountains, and after graduating Washington State University he traded it for a view of the Tetons. Odds are the mountains are where you’ll find him when not on deadline.

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