Following a competitive process, Teton County commissioners chose development group Mercill Partners to build workforce housing on county-owned land at 105 Mercill Ave.
The selected design — from developers Tyler Davis and Joe Rice, along with Mike Ralph and Chris Lee at the architecture firm Design Associates — offers 31 units with 45 bedrooms, an outdoor courtyard with 6,700 square feet of common space, underground parking and over 6,500 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor.
“We’re happy, and thankful for the opportunity, and definitely excited to get to work,” Davis said.
Design details, however, remain flexible and will continue to evolve as the developer works with the county to nail down specifics, Davis said, pointing to Mercill Partners’ flexibility as its strength.
“We’re able to change and do so many different things with our underground parking,” Davis said. “We can make units bigger, we can make them smaller, we can make more units, and we can make less units.”
The Mercill Avenue project marks the third recent attempt by elected officials to solicit housing proposals, the first being 174 N. King St. and the second (see cover story) 440 W. Kelly Ave. Teton County is contributing about $2.1 million in land adjacent to the Children’s Learning Center, and in March asked that private developers build a minimum of 22 units on the property. Five developers answered the call.
At a Tuesday meeting Commissioners Mark Newcomb, Mark Barron, Natalia Macker and Greg Epstein voted in favor of the Mercill Partners design.
Commissioner Luther Propst voted against it, instead favoring a design from the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust.
The Housing Trust’s proposal provided 24 or 25 units and 36 or 37 bedrooms. The Trust also partnered with the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum with a goal to provide ground-floor commercial space for the nonprofit, which is searching for a permanent home now that its previous location at 174 N. King is slated for a separate housing project.
“We have a housing crisis, and we have a day care crisis,” Propst said.
While the Children’s Museum was initially only a part of the Trust’s plans, Newcomb said he would support the Mercill Partners proposal only if they would also commit to offering ground-floor space to the Children’s Museum. All the projects were required to offer Teton County the first right to purchase any commercial space, which Newcomb said the county should take advantage of.
“No. 1, I maintain commitment to making the ground floor available to the Children’s Museum,” Newcomb said. He said institutional space should occupy the ground floor of the project rather than commercial, because institutional space doesn’t require housing mitigation units.
However, Macker cautioned against deciding a housing project based on the Children’s Museum, and said the county can’t guarantee any one organization can use the space at this point.
“There are organizations in our community that, if they knew that was going to be a choice, would be here looking for that because there are very critical human service agencies that pay a significant portion of their income in rent,” Macker said.
Davis said Mercill Partners has reached out to the Children’s Museum and is open to including space for it in the design.
Though Macker ultimately supported the Mercill Partners proposal to move the project forward, her “first choice” was a third option from developer Onion Flats and Love/Schack Architecture, which promised a carbon-neutral building. That proposal represented the only all-residential design, offering 27 units and 33 bedrooms.
Lindsay Schack’s architecture group collaborated on the Onion Flats project. She said the process has helped educate the community that energy-efficient buildings are possible and would further the county’s ecosystem stewardship goals.
“I want the commissioners to understand that carbon neutrality in buildings is not this mysterious, nebulous thing in the future we’ve got to wait for,” she said. “We can do it right now. Today, that’s not what we chose to do.”
Proposals from Onion Flats and Mercill Partners aimed for a higher number of smaller units, including one-bedrooms around 500 square feet, while the Housing Trust offered one-bedroom units as large as 1,150 square feet.
The Trust’s large unit size proved a point of contention in discussions. Some argued that smaller, more densely packed units were more efficient for subsidized housing, while others deemed larger units more livable for families. Propst said he preferred the Housing Trust’s larger units, which “provide more flexibility for people to stay in the long term.”
“We learned a lot in the process,” Housing Trust Director Anne Cresswell said in a statement. “It appears the priority du jour is heads on beds. Ultimately, we have a different vision for housing for our community.”
Davis said Mercill Partners can accommodate larger units if the county requests it.