Truckee Town Manager: ‘Housing crisis’ a major concern heading into 2016
January 20, 2016
TRUCKEE, Calif. — With 2016 being an election year, the Sierra Sun is devoting time each week to conduct interviews with officials and board members who work for the many public districts and government agencies representing Truckee and North Lake Tahoe.
This week, we feature an extended Q-and-A with Truckee Town Manager Tony Lashbrook:
Sierra Sun: As we embark on the second half of this decade, what improvements do you want to see with the town by 2020?
Lashbrook: To start off with, there's a lot of projects in the hopper that are improvements that we've been planning for a long time. You see the streetscape improvements in Brickelltown, for instance. That will continue from where it stops now in front of Marg's Taco (Bistro) and go west to where we're going to have a roundabout. We'll complete that portion of our downtown, which, if you think of the potential of the Railyard (project) anchoring down the eastern end of downtown … our thinking now — probably 10 years ago as well — is we need to make sure that the Brickelltown area remains viable. And so getting these improvements in there will go a long way in doing that, so that's a big deal.
We're going to be finishing the Mousehole, which is the pedestrian bore under the railroad tracks on Highway 89. That's a really big project for the town to undertake; it's a $15 million project on a state highway going underneath the transcontinental railroad. One might ask, 'Well, why is the town doing it?' Because nobody else was going to do it. And it's not only an immediate safety issue for the folks that live south of the railroad tracks but want to get to school and work and shop north of the railroad tracks, but also it's a key part of our overall pedestrian and bicycle master plan. The vision is the Truckee River Legacy Trail will go from Glenshire along the river, cross over at West River Street, go through the Mousehole and then go to Donner Lake. So not only does that connect our biggest resource attractions but it also is the backbone of circulation for the town.
Continuing on, kind of expanding transportation opportunities will in all likelihood be reconstructing West River Street next summer at the same time we're doing Brickelltown. You think about, those are the two parallel routes across town. To make sure that we got Class 2 bike facilities along West River Street from the town boundary, which is about where Donner Creek comes across West River Street to Bridge Street. So that's one of our last remaining arterial roads that doesn't have bike facilities on it. So you kind of think, 'Well, big deal,' but if you go back to when the town incorporated we inherited 155 miles of roadway that we had to maintain that was in pretty terrible shape. But that's not the point I'm making here. The point is there was maybe a half-mile of sidewalk and no bicycle facilities or trails, so every one of these steps is building this local system which will then tie into a regional system that will really provide transportation options while weaving this community together.
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The possibility of the Railyard actually going to construction within the next year is huge. That Railyard project was not envisioned by a developer, it was envisioned by the Truckee community when we were working with the downtown specific plan in 1995. So it's now starting to look like it may become a reality.
But moving farther out, I think the thing I would most look forward to seeing some progress on is really some improvements on the river, including both public and private development that were there because the river is an asset to the community. Not the more traditional development along the river that was there because it provides a convenient place to dump sawdust … it was the industrial, I'm talking 100 years ago, but it was the industrial area of the town and that legacy lives today. So I think that's a huge opportunity for the town and I think — or hope to see — some progress on that river. Maybe a pilot project or two that would really give people a notion of the opportunity the river provides and maybe a model project or tow that would develop excitement about that opportunity.
Sun: How does the town balance the needs of locals versus second-home owners and tourists?
Lashbrook: It's a great question. People ask me what I think the biggest issue in Truckee is — and that's not really your question, but I'll get to it — and I think it's how do you keep Truckee a real town so it doesn't become a resort place? And the good news is, 23 years ago at the time the town incorporated, it was about a 50/50 split of our homes, those that were occupied and those that were second homes, and it's still about a 50/50 split. It's kind of varied back and forth by a percentage point or two but we haven't seen any dramatic trend — the one I would be most worried about would be moving toward a much higher percentage of second homes versus house that people lived in.
I think the fact that Truckee is a real town, and part of that is it has a real historic district, but really it's a functioning town where people live and work and go to school and participate in local government. It not only makes Truckee the place that it is but it separates us apart from the Village at Squaw Valley or Northstar or wherever. Those are contrived places; they were envisioned by a developer and built at once, where this place has been built over 150 years and has a character and a soul that goes a long with that. So the challenge is making sure we stay a real town.
I think one of the biggest issues we face right now — we got a bit of a hiatus during the recession — is the cost of housing compared to the wages paid by local employment. It's a challenge. I don't think we can grow our way out of that; we have to be smarter than that. Our housing prices tend to be driven by the top couple percent of income earners in the Bay Area and Sacramento that want a second home, not by wages paid locally. So that's what's impacting our inventory. We have to be really smart about how we create housing opportunities that those people that work here can afford. That issue was front-and-center in 2005 through 2009. When the recession hit it kind of waned — it's back full-fledged. We got this regional housing study that we're working on with the community foundation and Truckee and Placer County and Nevada County. I think it's a big deal. I think getting the community dialogue going back up regionally on that issue is big. The town can't solve that problem; the private sector can't solve it. To make any real progress, it's going to have to be a full community effort of public policies, regulations, public money, private investment, all those things.
I think our biggest challenge is maintaining this is a real town, and I think that's probably the biggest challenge within that challenge — to make sure we continue to have housing available that would support our local workforce, so everyone's not commuting from Reno.
Sun: What do you like most about living and working Truckee?
Lashbrook: I'll approach it first on the job side. I'm a planner by profession and the town of Truckee incorporated in my opinion for two reasons. One was the perception that the county's level of service for road maintenance and snow removal was horrible. And the second was to control its own destiny from a land use, planning and growth standpoint.
Actually I think the trigger mechanism that led to incorporation was a Kmart project that was proposed here under county rule that the country approved, and Mountain Area Preservation created itself around (the project) and litigated and won and that project didn't happen and the town of Truckee incorporated pretty quickly thereafter.
So I was hired as the head of planning and other things, and, 'Hey, your job is to do a Truckee specific general plan, we don't like the work the county did, a downtown specific plan, develop financing tools to implement that.' We did redevelopment. And then new got into other issues, like dealing with air quality, which we had a pretty serious PM-10 problem, small particulate smoke dust, particularly on cold winter days. So we did some air quality work and then we got into the trails planning and implementation. So professionally, it's been a dream opportunity. You get to be in on the ground floor and help the community develop the most fundamental vision for what it wants to be and see it implemented.
On a more personal level, because I grew up in the Sierra, had an infinity for the mountains, I love snow. And the ability to come up here and be close to world-class skiing and also have this professional opportunity of a lifetime seemed like an opportunity that I couldn't pass up.
The opportunity to do that in a small town has been great. There's an accountability that comes with having a high-profile job in a small town that isn't great every moment of everyday; sometimes you're in the supermarket and you don't really want to talk to someone about a town issue. But on the main, it's very rewarding to participate with your community in making it a better place. That's been a heck of an opportunity that I've enjoyed.
Sun: In this modern era of smartphones and social media, how is the town changing how it communicates important information with the community?
Lashbrook: One of the principles of incorporation was a real and deep engagement with the community. And so for instance, the town was the first on TV with their meetings live, and led the way with a lot of that effort. When we did the downtown specific plan we did that before there was any social media, or even email — '95, yeah there was some email but it wasn't that prevalent — and we used video and we used local TV to do a visual preference survey. And we actually had 600 people — both residents and second homeowners — spend more than an hour to complete that effort. And got some huge feedback that still guides our vision and policies today.
And so what you see now, I think our primary conduit is our website and you can get on there and say, 'I'm interested in development,' so you get all information that's development related, including agendas and new project information, et cetera. Or, 'I'm interested in everything,' and you get kind of the down low of everything the town is involved in.
Moving forward a little bit further we're touring around with FlashVote, which is a cell phone-based app that allows for deeper surveys about issues that we might be dealing with.
But we continue to be hands on so we're working on Envision DPR. It's been a longtime since Donner Pass Road was the Interstate Highway 40, like almost 50 years, maybe it's time to start thinking about it as a local street and what it should look like. So we're still downtown at Truckee Thursdays with a person in a booth talking to people about what their thoughts are and getting their input. While we've moved in that direction (digital) we haven't abandoned that direction (personal), and I think going back to the small town thing, it's important, we don't want to be this faceless app-based governance. We want it to be much more real than that.
Sun: What's the top one or two biggest challenges the town faces in 2016?
Lashbrook: Challenges … I think what's next for us in dealing with this housing crisis — I would call it a housing crisis; the gap between what people make and what's available here. There's basically no rental housing here, and what's our role in that? Do we go further in the policy arena? Or do we try to commit more monetary resources? I think that will be a big discussion.
I think the Railyard project will be a big community discussion. Just over the first half of this year as we really roll out the entitlements for that project. Those will probably be the two biggies.