Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Living in downtown mixed-use building has perks, drawbacks

Jackson mayor pushes concept to preserve resort town's core

Express Staff Writer

Davies Reid proprietor Heidi Davies walks in front of the window of her store in Jackson, Wyo., last month. Davies and her family live and work in the historic building on the town square. Express photo by Rebecca Meany

A Tale of Two Cities
First in a series of two


The commute from home to work for Davies Reid proprietor Heidi Davies is a flight of stairs.

She and husband Michael Miller, who have stores in Ketchum and Boise, opened up shop in Jackson, Wyo., nearly five years ago.

A labor of love turned a historic building on the town square into a home upstairs and a renovated store downstairs. It became an ideal setting for their inventory of oriental rugs and Asian decor.

"(The building) needed desperate help," Davies said. "It needed some TLC. This building has more character than most buildings in Jackson. Most are boxes with facades. We're trying to dress up this box."

In addition to customers' requests for a Jackson store, Davies and Miller were drawn to the western Wyoming resort town because they liked the town square concept.

"The whole town is centered around it," Davies said. "It felt like there was a core."

Jackson Mayor Mark Barron said he'd like to get more people living and working downtown—a concept he said would lessen traffic problems, curb sprawl and create a greater sense of community.

"It's a community value to enable more people working here to live here," he said.

However, a series of ordinances the mayor and Town Council passed in 2003 to bring about that end were overturned by referendum.

For Miller, that means the town is going in the wrong direction—outward rather than upward.

Many people are relocating to Teton Village, a community 12 miles northwest of Jackson, adjacent to the Jackson Hole ski area.

"If this town doesn't do something to focus development in the core, it's all going to move out to the village," Miller said.

"And that would really hurt downtown," Davies added.

Ketchum's downtown was deemed to be so impacted by changing demographics and increasing land values that the City Council enacted a six-month moratorium on single-family residential development in the commercial core.

City leaders said the emergency ordinance was needed because of disappearing retail space and the accompanying dwindling sales taxes.

The moratorium, followed by the hiring of economic development consultant Tom Hudson, are considered the first steps in amending the approach to downtown development and regulation. It could also pave the way for denser, higher-occupancy living spaces.

During the process of formulating a downtown master plan, Ketchum residents, officials and business owners will conceptualize a city core that is both more vibrant and more welcoming.

"You need that concept of 'Town is Heart' that politicians talk about," Miller said. "If you had more people living downtown, you'd have a more vibrant downtown."

The Jackson/Teton County transportation master plan describes the town of Jackson as the heart of the region, Barron said.

"It says the town of Jackson will be the gathering place of the community," he said. "Linked to that, in order to mitigate that, there should be 1,200 dwelling units in town to enable it to happen in the most efficient manner."

Mixed-use buildings where people live and work is a well-established concept, but one that modern Americans have gotten away from.

"We're not inventing anything here," Barron said. "We're realizing it did work."

Downtown living is not without its pitfalls, however.

"It's difficult to live downtown," Davies said. "There's no residential parking. Locals won't come downtown in the summer. It's a zoo. We can't find a place to park."

Jackson is the southern gateway community for Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, and has a robust outdoor recreation industry that includes fishing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, mountain climbing, camping and whitewater rafting. And, while the 3 million visitors who pass through Jackson each summer are good for business, the buzz of activity can sometimes reach fever pitch.

"The town square has a highway system that goes right through it," Barron said. "Visitors will naturally be drawn to it."

Although Ketchum's visitor count is much lower, state Highway 75 brings 16,000 vehicles into town each day.

To create a greater sense of place for locals, and to quiet vehicular activity, Davies and Miller would like to see the streets around Jackson's town square closed off to vehicle traffic and turned in to a walking mall.

Maintaining a sense of community is achieved in part by a town's atmosphere, its visual connections to local history and possibilities for daily human interaction.

"People have a very strong feeling of keeping that Western feel," Barron said, "but that's a very subjective challenge."

The building occupied by Davies Reid was Jackson Drug for many years, and its 1937 soda fountain counter and bar stools remain.

"It's important to keep history intact," Davies said. "It keeps the charm. To tear it down would kind of be sacrilege."

Davies, a former Wood River Valley resident, said Ketchum and Blaine County leaders had foresight when enacting development regulations.

Jackson, on the other hand, has let growth taint the town's character, Davies said, especially on the road into town.

"It's ugly," she said. "Driving into Ketchum is so cute. A lot of people we meet here go to Ketchum and say, 'What a cute town.' I think Ketchum has done a really good job with planning and zoning and things they allow into town. Why would Jackson allow McDonald's when there's no coffee shops?"

Ketchum residents have been offering input and working hands-on to formulate a downtown master plan.

Public art, streetscapes, historic preservation and pedestrian corridors are aspects of the vision.

Once that plan is implemented, Barron said, allocating money for upkeep is a necessary investment.

"We wash trash cans once a week so they look nice," he said. "We repair crosswalks every spring, improve worn boardwalks and enhance safer pedestrian crosswalks.

"Walking is an experience. If you make it a pleasant experience, people will want to do it."

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