440 West Kelly Ave.

Town and county officials have asked developers to redesign proposals for 12 to 16 housing units on a .31-acre parcel at 440 W. Kelly Ave., seen at center with tan siding and a green roof.

For a community that is all about the spectacular landscape that is Jackson Hole we show a decidedly ambivalent concern for the places where we humans actually live.

The vision of the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan is to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.” The implementation of that vision is to concentrate new growth in the existing urban core — “town as heart.” We all know these phrases, having heard them repeated for years. But what about the resulting “quality of life” and quality of place?

On May 13, Jackson Mayor Muldoon gave a passionate speech at the joint information meeting urging approval of the development partner for the new Housing Department project at 440 W. Kelly Ave. He said, “I like the way the town used to look … [but] I value the people of this community more than the buildings.”

Hard to argue on the face of it, but think a little deeper. Buildings are our homes, buildings are the framework of neighborhoods, and neighborhoods are the building blocks of a great town. If we don’t take care of how and where we build then we will never have a great town that reflects the true spirit of this community. What is missing in the current focus on the urgent need for more housing is a matching commitment to building great neighborhoods.

West Kelly Avenue is a small neighborhood that reflects the historic character of Jackson. Some residents were born here and have lived here for over 60 years. Others are entrepreneurs who have worked hard for years to build a home and life in the community, and still others are more recent arrivals. But all exhibit the warmth and friendliness that is one of the greatest things about life in this community. Ironically (and unsurprisingly) this proposal has further served to connect them.

The proposal for 440 has generated a heated response from the neighbors and numerous other respected members of our community because it is seen as a clear threat to neighborhood character. Not, as some have suggested, because of an opposition to workforce housing. No one has suggested that additional workforce housing is wrong for the neighborhood.

But the scale, height and density of this project are incompatible with the surrounding area. It is not helping build a great neighborhood; it is degrading it. Think about it. Would you want a three-story, 12- to 16-unit apartment building dropped into the center of your neighborhood?

This is a critical decision point for our community because this is a test case for the future and sets an important precedent. We thank the Housing Department for putting forward a proposal that highlights some of the unforeseen consequences of last year’s zoning revisions. However, if this project is a model for the future then we will end up with a neighborhood of parking lots with housing on stilts above. It will yield a density of 48 units to the acre, equivalent to downtown Portland or Los Angeles. Is this the end result we want?

This project represents the new “as of right” zoning in the NH-1 district in combination with the “fill the box” incentives for workforce and affordable housing, which will permit three-story projects to be built throughout the neighborhood, without any design standards.

This highlights the flaws of applying that bonus indiscriminately throughout these areas and contradicts the comp plan, which states: “Multifamily structures will be predominantly found on larger residential lots along mixed-use corridors. The size and scale of multifamily structures will be predominantly two stories with three stories considered in specific cases with proper design.”

Why, then is the “fill the box” bonus not being applied in a more targeted way to current and future areas of density such as the commercial corridors, the downtown core and streets that are directly linked to the commercial core? And why are we assuming that the existing houses and neighborhoods that people have called home for many years are simply disposable commodities that can be so easily discarded? How is this a benchmark of sustainability?

Jackson has the bones of a great town, particularly in the historic parts laid out according to traditional gridded patterns of streets and blocks, and we have development standards in the downtown core that reflect that. We should be applying that same level of design care and attention to new neighborhood developments. If we do that, then the West Kelly neighborhood will certainly welcome new investment in housing and the public realm.

At the same joint information meeting County Commissioner Luther Propst suggested that we need to “build confidence” with this first project and advocated for a smaller, more compatible building. Right now, that’s not what’s happening.

Michael A. Stern is a landscape architect and urban designer who lives on West Kelly Avenue. He is treasurer of the Teton County Historic Preservation Board and a member of the town of Jackson Design Review Committee. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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