Amid passionate public testimony, the proposed 56-unit Bluebird Village workforce-housing development in downtown Ketchum took a step forward Tuesday night.
The Ketchum Planning & Zoning Commission voted 5-0 to send the project to formal design review, after conducting a pre-application design review hearing and workshop to provide comments and direction to the developer on preliminary designs and plans.
“This is pretty well done,” P&Z Chairman Neil Morrow said.
P&Z commissioners—who do not have authority over the proposed use of the project or whether the location is suitable—expressed generally favorable comments about the project but asked for some modifications to lessen visual impact. Lead developer Greg Dunfield said the project team would make some changes to the plans before official design review. That likely won’t commence until summer, city staff indicated.
At issue is a high-profile project proposed by Seattle-based GMD Development—working in partnership with the nonprofit Ketchum Community Development Corp.—to develop two four-story buildings totaling about 60,000 square feet at 480 East Ave., the current location of Ketchum City Hall and the headquarters of the Ketchum Fire Department. The approximately 0.6-acre site is on two lots.
The two buildings—with maximum heights of about 51 feet and 49 feet—would offer a combination of 35 one-bedroom units, 16 two-bedroom units and five three-bedroom units, ranging in size from about 640 to 1,130 square feet. The deed-restricted residential units would be built on three floors over a ground floor that includes offices, 2,400 square feet of commercial space, 49 parking spaces and 110 bicycle spaces. Amenities for residents include patios, storage lockers, e-bike charging stations, an exercise room and a rooftop deck.
The two buildings would be connected by a skybridge over a city alley, which would be narrowed for the plan.
“This is a community project and a potential asset,” Dunfield, president and owner of GMD Development, told the P&Z.
Though public comment is not typically taken at pre-design review sessions, the P&Z did take comment from 31 people who gave impassioned statements for and against the project.
Ketchum and Blaine County residents who spoke in favor of Bluebird Village included former County Commissioner Sarah Michael, Ketchum resident and housing advocate Gary Hoffman, neighborhood resident and former P&Z member Susan Scovell, architect and planner Rebecca Bundy and several young citizens in the workforce who spoke about the profound need for affordable housing.
“I do believe that old and young, rich and poor, have a right to live in this town,” said Russell Train, a seven-year Ketchum resident.
Train said he has seen 30 friends lose their housing in the past three months because of market conditions. He said friends in the restaurant trade had said several restaurants had been closed recently because they did not have adequate staff.
Annie DeAngelo, a local teacher, said she is connected to 31 young people in the area through an ongoing text thread.
“Friend after friend is getting booted out of their house,” she said, because owners are converting to short-term rentals, raising rents or selling their properties.
“Those are the people that teach your kids, those are the people that serve you dinner, those are the people that make the mountain operate, those are the people that fix your bike, the people that take care of you at the hospital, before you see a doctor,” she said. “They’re people that make this town work. And I’m scared and I’m sad, because I feel a lot of people are trying to shoot this project down.”
Detractors criticized the size and location of the project, pointing to potential impacts on neighbors and a potential loss of parking in the retail core of the city.
“Bluebird will endanger me and my property,” said Sue Dumke, owner of the property immediately south of the project site.
“It’s just too big,” Ketchum resident Perry Boyle said.
Boyle said the city needs affordable housing—after decades of “mismanagement”—but not in the form of Bluebird.
“This massive apartment complex has absolutely no mountain-town feel,” said downtown resident Susan Martin.
John Melin, Ketchum resident and owner of Ketchum Kitchens, located in an adjacent block, said he believes the parking analysis for the project is a “sham.” Bluebird would contribute to the “hollowing out of the downtown core,” he said.
P&Z Commissioner Mattie Mead asked how the project would be different from the KETCH developments on First Avenue, which were proposed and built as affordable housing—but with most of the units not subject to deed restrictions. The original developer sold those two buildings last month, and have reported substantial rent increases in the weeks since.
The Bluebird project has a complicated ownership structure and plan. The city has purchased an office building at Fifth Street and Second Avenue to serve as a new administrative and police headquarters and is building a new fire station at a city-owned property on Saddle Road. The city plans to move all those operations later this year.
If Bluebird Village is approved, the existing city structure would be demolished. The city has approved an “option to lease” the East Avenue property to the Ketchum CDC, a nonprofit organization that works on revitalization projects in the city. GMD Development has been awarded federal tax credits that would assist in offsetting the overall costs of the project. For 15 years, GMD, tax-credit investors and the CDC would own the project. After 15 years, GMD and the investors would exit the project and full ownership of the buildings would go to the CDC, on the city-owned land. Land-use restrictions mandate that the project be maintained as affordable housing for at least 40 years.
With oversight from the city, the project would implement a “local preference policy” that targets workers at a variety of income levels in the workforce, based on the area median income at the time.
Comments from commissioners focused on a need for additional setbacks on the fourth floors of the buildings and whether the wide range of exterior materials might be reduced or modified to improve the appearance.
The city will schedule the P&Z to conduct its formal design review of the project after GMD submits a modified application and it is reviewed by city staff. Elements of the application will also go before the City Council.