Mammoth Real Estate Q&A — The Sprung Solution To All Of Mammoth’s Problems

This Mammoth Real Estate Q&A appears in the post 4th of July weekend issue of The Sheet

Q: The recent proposal for the ice rink/MUF to be a “sprung” structure seems like a serious compromise and even though we think it would work it certainly doesn’t seem like it is consistent with Mammoth’s goal of being a world class destination resort. The local government holds everybody else to strict development and design review standards. Are Mammoth’s town leaders messaging that we are destined to be the feared “half assed” resort?  

A: This new proposal has many interesting implications for the future direction of this community and local real estate. The sprung or tensile fabric structures are successfully used worldwide and effectively in harsh environments. And even though they are normally considered to be portable or temporary structures (like the ones at Eagle Base — 20 years later), they can have a useable lifespan of over 50 years. The new proposal would be the first sprung structure approved on private land within Mammoth Lakes and approved as a permanent facility. That is important.

A profound aspect to these structures is that they could in fact be the Machiavellian solution for many of Mammoth’s problems. That is due to the massive volume these structures achieve at a lower cost of construction per square or cubic foot. And once this sprung structure precedent is set the trend could proliferate in Mammoth whether we like it not. Especially if the new “recreation center” is considered a permanent facility. After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Grocery Outlet might be pissed that they didn’t have the opportunity to build a sprung structure. It would have been far more cost efficient. 

The 24 acres at The Parcel, our major workforce housing site, could be dominated by sprung structures. It would make sense. The people looking for a warm, affordable place to live don’t really care what it looks like. And after living here through so many big winters, I think a sprung structure house might be an interesting alternative — my own igloo. Or maybe we can have a bunch of sprung “tiny homes” at the RV Park. They could be made to look like Yosemite cabins. And sprung structures could make the Main St. and Old Mammoth Road redevelopment plan viable. The parking could be merged right into the inside of the structure. Presto! 

If we head in this direction it may be the proverbial “game changer” the community leaders are searching for. They are an ends-justifies-the-means group. Their lofty goals that always seem to be out-of-reach (or is that out-of-touch?) can become reality. A plethora of sprung structures may very well be in Mammoth’s future. Sometimes you have to make compromises. It might not be pretty but at least our fearless leaders can claim “mission accomplished.”

But you are right that the trend wouldn’t be consistent with all of our noble planning and resort “visioning” of the past 30+ years. But those standards have been unevenly applied depending on the public officials and public employees of the day. And every generation we have witnessed a major, frustrated general contractor who is “never going to build in Mammoth again.” My administrative law professor at UCLA liked to belabor the phrase “arbitrary and capricious.” That is the fitting term for Mammoth’s aesthetic police over the past decades.

Since incorporation Mammoth Lakes has engaged in endless discussions about design review. I know, I have sat through more than enough of them. Volumes of ideas and guidelines have been discussed with many established. Most developers typically don’t want to spend excess dollars on aesthetics. So there are always compromises. But if the established guidelines weren’t in place there would be no chance to create some sort of resort character as the community evolves. Mammoth has a record of successes and failures. We may be on the precipice of another success, or failure.   

And here is a fitting example. In the early 1990’s the Town’s planners went to war with the community over signage. It was important for it to happen. There were lengthy and heated public meetings and eventually a new sign ordinance was approved. The goal again was to create a more attractive resort community, a place that “looked different from where the visitors came from.” Signage was limited in size based on building frontages and were to be made of natural materials, preferably wood with relief, etc.. Back-lit signs were prohibited. Neon signs were limited to “Open” signs. Buildings with more than one business needed to have an approved sign plan. And on and on.

The “old guard” in town didn’t like the new requirements (and ironically some of the old “grandfathered” signs are still standing some 30 years later). But over time when new, conforming signs were constructed we saw the visual impact of quality signage on the community. But unfortunately it all went sideways. Commissions and staff buckled to the hardship and whining of business owners. Other business owners just ignored the permitting process and put up whatever they wanted to. And the activity went unchecked. During Mammoth’s “BK era” there was simply no enforcement at all. 

Now there is new, crap signage all over town. The last time I went through the process I had a $5,000 wood carved sign made by a well-known local artisan. The regulators were nit-picking about the placement of the mountains in the background of the sign. I laughed at them. It’s a piece of art by a real artist. The Town has gone hardline on the enforcement of real estate open house signs that will be on the street for a couple of hours. But they arbitrarily enforce permanent signage all over town.

So I ask; How is the Town going to regulate all of these sprung structures?? Arbitrarily? Capriciously? If the Town fails to regulate signage how will they regulate all of the sprung structures people will want to put up. I’ll put mine up on a weekend and be done. Theoretically, because of new affordable housing mandates, the State (and Town) should be promoting smaller sprung “homes” as ADUs (accessory dwelling units). These can be placed on already developed residential lots. The demand and rental for these freestanding ADUs would be high. That could be coming to our neighborhoods.  

The most recent presentation of this sprung structure recreation center (ice rink /MUF) proposed giving the “tent” some whimsical add-ons that could give it some sort of aesthetically appealing appearance. Is this the infamous “lipstick on a pig?” And is this going to be the acceptable level for approvals going forward? One local resident told me that the sprung structure reminds him of the enormous Donald Trump balloons in the London street protests. Another resident suggested putting a trunk on it so it would look like a white elephant. I think it should have a trunk and some tusks so it can resemble a Mammoth Woolly. Maybe that is how we make it work; all new sprung structures have to have trunks and tusks and maybe even hair. At least it is a reasonably fitting design theme for our town.      

But everything aside, the real question remains; Is the Town going to have to live by their own design review and development standards? And what precedent should it set? I can hear them now arbitrarily reasoning that this should be the only one allowed. I guess we’re going to find out. And do the new, major investors in Mammoth think that sprung structures are appropriate, and maybe all over town. But don’t forget, our leaders could solve numerous community problems with these inexpensive and efficient structures. Or ruin the place. You decide. 

And many are still asking; How did it all come to this??? Well, because a small cohort in Mammoth decided the ice rink should be on land that the Town actually owned. So it went from an $800,000 ice rink roof to a $20 million dollar ice rink and summer day care center. And the fiasco has the potential to get a lot worse. Mammoth could become a tent city. Even worse,  nobody really seems to have an idea what the long term costs of the facility are. And cost goes beyond dollars.

But is this ownership issue really a sound financial decision (this is a real estate column)?? The two largest businesses in Mono County, MMSA and the Ormat geothermal plant are both on leased land. Both are very successful and profitable. And did you know that anyone with enough money could be the landlord for two of our newest businesses; Grocery Outlet and the Main St. Starbucks?? These properties are both offered for sale and these prosperous businesses/corporations have no problem paying rent. The community may have gone down the rabbit hole on a dubious premise.

And what about the opportunity cost of putting this 65-year structure on this site? This is the best piece of land the town owns; the views, sun, riparian corridor and location are unsurpassed. Is this the best usage of this property for the next 65 years? With the increasingly popular museum, hub of the bike paths, coming improvements at Sierra Meadows, etc.; Does putting this massive structure that looks like a maintenance facility in an Alaskan oil field make sense? But clearly “the fix is in.” And the fix may be in for the whole community.

In the meantime everything is great. The bed tax receipts and marketing expenditures are at all time highs. We are going to get our new recreation center, come hell or high water. But ask any employer how his staffing is going? Probably not well. I’m sure they can’t wait to see the sprung structures at The Parcel filled with lots of happy employees.

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