Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Ketchum URA to buy historic property

Retail space would be eliminated for affordable housing

Express Staff Writer

The Dollhouse, a five-day-old consignment clothing store at Washington and First Street, will close once its two-year lease expires. The Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency is in the process of buying the property to build an affordable housing project. Photo by Chris Pilaro

Lara Spencer is doing exactly what the city of Ketchum wishes more people would do.

She opened a retail business downtown, catering to women who need affordable clothing. She's living in the back of the business, eliminating a commute. She's opened up lines of communication with nonprofit groups to give back to the community. And she fixed up the interior of a historic building with her own hands.

After five days in business, Spencer found out Tuesday that the city is planning to tear down the building.

With $50,000 in earnest money, the Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency is on its way to acquiring the property for a potential affordable housing project.

The Ketchum City Council on Monday, Nov. 6, approved the loan to the URA for the purchase of a two-lot parcel of land at 211 First St. E., at Washington Ave.

While the city is trying to make good on a promise to increase affordable housing units, it's had to sacrifice other stated goals of preserving "heritage" buildings and boosting retail in the core.

Spencer's new consignment clothing store, The Dollhouse, may be the first such sacrifice the city, its residents and some of its business owners have to make.

"I quit my job with the Seattle Mariners," Spencer said. "This is my dream."

Spencer has family in town, but she's also here to expand shopping options for working women and maybe create a small social gathering spot.

Although she hadn't heard about the URA's action and was initially shocked, she said that possibility was always in the back of her mind.

"I was assuming the property value would be more important than keeping this in place," she said.

As an affordable housing advocate, she sees some good in the transaction.

"I have mixed emotions," she said. "I'm an advocate for affordable housing, but at the same time, I think it's important to keep historic buildings. It's a catch-22. But if it has to go that way, affordable housing is a good thing to do."

The city said the 1930s-era building has structural issues and may not be salvageable.

"It's got a lot of problems," said Councilman Baird Gourlay.

Spencer wonders why she was able to live and work there if it's unsound.

"How bad could it be?" she said.

Most of the house's fixtures are original, as is the fireplace and the hardwood floors.

"This cabin is beautiful," she said. "Somebody's got to want to take it."

The two lots the cabin and an outbuilding are on are adjacent to two city-owned lots. The four lots together would equal approximately half a block.

The purchase price for the 11,000-square-foot parcel is $2.25 million, or $204.50 per square foot.

Sellers are Dr. Buck and JoAnn Levy, Tom Ziegler and David Duval.

The parcel is one of several the city is hoping to acquire to build affordable housing. If similar projects are built at Sixth and Leadville and the north end of the city's Park & Ride lot, the city could add 100 workforce housing units to its holdings, depending on recommendations from the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority, said URA executive director Ron LeBlanc.

The URA will allow The Dollhouse to operate until its two-year lease expires.

"We're looking at two years in planning, anyway," said Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall.

In the meantime, Spencer will continue to work on her business and reach out to the community.

"I'm not here to make millions," she said. "If it goes to affordable housing, that is giving back to the community, too. So I don't really think that's a bad thing."

If I'm lucky," she added, "by the time I have to leave, maybe another spot will open."

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