Urban Land Institute panel recommends housing authority hire community scale developer for Brown Ranch

Yampa Valley Housing Authority would be "vision keeper" and public face of project, while fee developer handles day to day

The Yampa Valley Housing Authority purchased the Brown Ranch with a $24 million anonymous donation in August 2021.
Ben Saheb/Courtesy photo

Land use experts from around the country recommend the Yampa Valley Housing Authority hires a community scale developer to provide day-to-day oversight of the Brown Ranch as it’s built out over the next 20 years.

The housing authority’s role would be that of “vision keeper,” a panel of developers and urban planners from the Urban Land Institute recommended on Friday, Dec. 9.

While emphasizing there are a lot of hurdles ahead for the Brown Ranch as it builds out 2,300 units by 2040, the panel said the development plan presented to community last month is a good start. The housing authority’s board of directors will consider approval of that development plan on Thursday, Dec. 15.

“The plan is a great start,” said Mike Pitchford, who worked as a developer for Bank of America for 25 years before becoming a nonprofit affordable housing developer. “The key here is the vision keeper, who manages the process and oversees that the vision gets maintained and that the delivery for the community is there.”

The recommendations come after the panel spent last week in the Yampa Valley, learning about the Brown Ranch project, touring the 536-acre property and talking to members of the community about the development. Members of the panel said hiring a community scale developer would allow the housing authority to maintain a broader focus.

“It does sound big and daunting, but the reality is that this is only one solution to a bigger problem,” said Molly McCabe, a developer from Montana and chair of the panel. “It is an ambitious, multi-year project. It won’t happen overnight, so we don’t want you to get hung up on the numbers. It will happen and there are ways to make it happen.”

Pitchman emphasized that the housing authority needs to build capacity and make friends, with the first friend being a fee developer that has experience with large projects like the Brown Ranch. This developer would be responsible for the horizontal construction of infrastructure like roads and then work with other developers to build vertically.

“Our objective is to ensure that the vast scope of this project doesn’t stretch your team beyond your capability and capacity,” said Jay Bullock, a developer from Orange County, California.

For vertical construction, Lorenzo Perez, a small-scale developer based in Arizona, said the housing authority should consider off-site, modular construction as a strategy to reduce the need for local construction laborers that are already in short supply.

Members of an Urban Land Institute panel said modular construction, where sections of buildings are manufactured offsite and then assembled locally, could be a strategy when building out Brown Ranch.
Urban Land Institute/Courtesy photo

He said the variety of housing types in the development plan should allow local developers to build aspects of the project. To meet the need faster, Perez suggested the housing authority looks into building modular temporary housing that would eventually be removed as the Brown Ranch develops. This could meet the current demand for housing among locals, as well as house construction workers that will be needed for build-out.

The city of Steamboat Springs’ capacity needs to be increased as well, said Sandra Moberly, the community and economic development director for the town of Mammoth Lakes, California. Moberly said the city should consider hiring a consultant to handle inspections, entitlements and other aspects of development.

She also said an annexation agreement should be crafted in a way that encourages faster development, potentially making building in Brown Ranch allowed by right or approved administratively, which would avoid public hearing on individual projects.

City services will also need to be extended as the Brown Ranch is built. Moberly said the design of the project should be handled with city services in mind. For example, designing roads to have efficient snow removal.

Stephen Norman, the retired executive director of the King County Housing Authority near Seattle, said he led a project on 100 acres that built more than 1,000 units that he said is similar to Brown Ranch. While it is key to ensure that large projects remain flexible, he said it is important to constantly circle back to the central vision, which is affordability.

One strategy he used on that project was to sell off a portion of the property to a private developer that builds market rate housing, with the proceeds from that allowing the rest of the project to be more affordable. That could be an option at the Brown Ranch too, Norman said.

“There is a disconnect between what many lines of work that are vital in your community pay, and what the current market for housing it,” Norman said. “The money we got for the land sale cross-subsidized our infrastructure costs and helped write down the rents so we could have deeper affordability.”

In addition to Friday’s presentation, the Urban Land Institute panel is drafting a written report of recommendations for the Brown Ranch, which McCabe said would be finished over the next couple months.

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