Wednesday, July 5, 2006

How will Ketchum survive?

Consultant addresses master plan topics

Express Staff Writer

Since October, Ketchum city staff members and economic development consultant Tom Hudson have been working to create a framework for the downtown master plan, a first draft of which Hudson will unveil later this month. In anticipation of that presentation, the Idaho Mountain Express asked Hudson to elucidate some aspects of the plan.

IME: How do population dynamics in Ketchum relate to density?

Hudson: In recent years, Ketchum's population total has been stagnant. Population makeup, however, is changing substantially. Second homes dominate new construction. The year-round population is getting older. We have fewer families, workers and children. Meanwhile, the county expects population growth of about 10,000 by 2020. Ketchum should be able to absorb a portion of that. To restore a balanced population, we've got to create workforce housing. Land is expensive, and citizens are clear about their opposition to sprawl. Our only alternative is to use land inside Ketchum more efficiently.

ME: Why is it essential to revisit downtown density?

Hudson: In the last 10 years of local development much of the construction has been devoid of affordable workforce housing. Many citizens complain this construction is inconsistent in look and feel with Ketchum traditions. Both existing codes and allowable density contribute to undesirable trends. Residents and businesses are migrating south; business costs are climbing; and declines in slack season business (with fewer year-round residents to support businesses), all contribute to the decline in downtown vitality. Increasing density, requiring affordable housing, and emphasizing a more compact, dense core are important ways to help bring back both residents and visitors.

ME: What are potential benefits of allowing fifth floors? Drawbacks?

Hudson: With the very high cost of land, a fifth story may be the difference in making a desirable project economically viable. At a recent public meeting, a majority of citizens expressed support for a fifth floor when used to attract affordable workforce housing, hotels, or educational institution development. If fifth floors were allowed, it would be in very limited and carefully selected locations. Benefits: incentive for desirable development; affordable workforce housing. Drawbacks: some people don't want additional building height so the concept is controversial. Greater height can be perceived as having a negative impact on downtown's character and view corridors.

ME: If increased density isn't allowed, will there be an impact on downtown businesses?

Hudson: There are likely to be negative impacts on both supply and demand. Retail goods and services are spread out and too limited at this time to draw enough visitors year-round to remain collectively viable. More density will bring in more year-round residents/customers, more stable employees, lower operating costs (e.g., through lower employee turnover), and more collective business draw. The current system is not working. If density is not increased—along with implementation of other strategic business development programs—I anticipate continued closures of local businesses. Slack seasons are likely to become more severe.

ME: What will happen if affordable housing is not addressed?

Hudson: This community will become more dominated by part-time residents as economic pressures continue to force citizens to move further south. This will reduce the number of local year-round customers, the availability of stable workforce, weaken the school system (with fewer students), increase traffic on the highway, and generally weaken Ketchum as a community.

ME: How do you increase density while addressing current property owners' concerns about solar access and view corridors?

Hudson: The real view corridors are along streets and avenues. These will be sustained. Note that even a two-story building on a street like Leadville blocks pedestrian views. The Lane Mercantile building is forty-two feet high. I don't think anyone complains about it blocking view corridors or solar access. The four-story building height cap the city is considering is only six feet higher than that. In addition, four story heights will be limited to certain locations.

There may be impacts on certain property owners where adjacent building heights are increased over the current code. However, it is wrong to think that adjacent property owners can dictate what can be built on neighboring properties. If somebody wants to secure a particular view corridor over someone else's property, they have to try to purchase the right to do so.

ME: Why are four-story buildings recommended?

Hudson: Four story buildings would only be allowed (with few exceptions such as hotels or purely affordable housing projects) with the purchase of development rights from another specified downtown property. The voluntary Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) would give property owners in "sending areas" the option of selling second and third floor development rights to other property owners within "receiving areas." This tool would encourage preservation of some of the low scale structures and blocks that represent Ketchum's heritage while helping preserve a varied building skyline.

ME: How does development in Western mountain towns differ from what used to be in place there?

Hudson: Perhaps the major factor is the epic migration that is happening in the U.S. West. People in unprecedented numbers are moving to rural places where quality of life is high. Unfortunately, many long-term residents in mountain towns have not experienced any substantially positive change in their incomes. As property values rise, so do property taxes, the overall cost of living and the temptation to escape to better conditions—with a one time sell-off bonus.

A second key factor is the change in the local economy. Towns dominated by second homes find it hard to remain diversified. A narrower range of jobs means fewer opportunities for year-round residents to remain. Construction tends to become a major industry, feeding what can become an addiction to growth. All of these issues press Western mountain towns to be strategic in their development.

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