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For the week of Jan. 19 through Jan. 25, 2000

Open design debate again

The common wisdom on new buildings in Ketchum is that they are too big and too ugly. Name practically any building constructed in the last 10 years and there’s a legion of critics who hate it.

Some critics seem to believe that if the town is somehow frozen in time, it will retain the things they like about it—the sense of clinging to the edge of wild lands, the sense of slowing the rush of time, the friendliness of people and the sense that they have discovered a special place.

Traffic on the highway and the sprawl of new subdivisions tells us that the secret’s out. What’s left to do is to figure out how to retain the feel residents and visitors love in the face of certain cold facts including:

  • Nothing short of a national recession or depression will reduce or freeze land prices.

  • Commercial landlords are not in business to lose money.

  • Nothing short of martial law will dictate whether someone may take up residence here or may start a business.

  • Forced reduction of the size of new downtown buildings will bankrupt local small businesses by creating impossibly high rents.

Satisfying building design can soften the hard edges of growth and make the facts a little easier to face.

No one wants the city to become a sea of cheap buildings. No one wants concern for maximizing financial returns to overshadow satisfying design or destroy the feel of the town.

It’s time for the city to re-visit the idea of defining design throughout town. The standards now in place are very general and simply call for design appropriate for mountain environs.

What that means is anyone’s guess.

It leaves the design and the character of the whole downtown to the sensibilities of the Design Review Board, which sensibilities change as its members change.

The lack of definitive standards leaves review board members and architects grasping at straws. One year stucco is good, the next stucco is bad. Brick is in, then brick is out.

Local residents and visitors can do little but complain after the fact if a building emerges as a wart on the landscape.

The issue was debated more than 20 years ago. Ketchum decided to leave the design of commercial buildings in the city very open. The city hoped this decision would lead to an interesting mix of building styles.

Unfortunately, the decision also left the town susceptible to becoming populated by buildings that maximize space and give short shrift to satisfying design.

It’s time to revisit the debate. It’s time for residents and visitors to weigh in again on what the city should look like as it grows. Wild West? Contemporary? Mountain log? Modern? Bavarian? Victorian? Southwestern? All of the above?

The city again could decide to leave itself as a blank canvas for designers. On the other hand, there’s a chance that for the first time, the city may find agreement on what it should look like. Either way, the critics will have had their day.


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