In a scene that can best be described as “only in Truckee,” town council chambers were packed for an 8 a.m. meeting on a cold Wednesday morning in late October to talk about safeguarding the historical look of town.
The Historical Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC) was reviewing the proposed new downtown development, Residences at Jibboom Street, a process which elicited a large handful of public comments and even a bout of applause.
The applause at the committee meeting came after HPAC member Vangie Wightman’s comment on the project, “This is typical. It’s almost common. Why do we have to be San Jose?”
The five-story, 83-unit project includes 49 rental units (13 of which would target low-income residents) and 34 condominium units for sale (for more detail see ‘Missing Middle’ Housing Project Envisions Live-Work-Play From Jibboom Street).
Tahoe City developer Sean Whelan, along with his partner Kevin Sloan, maintain that the project aims to bring density, parking solutions, and workforce housing options that would move Truckee’s downtown forward. Yet opponents, in addition to those concerned about the plan’s historical character, have also raised concerns about the past history of Whelan himself.
Wightman was riding the same wave as the packed room that applauded her. Much of the public commentary advocated the Jibboom Street project be rejected or at least greatly reduced and redesigned, and 33 of the 34 written public comments received in advance of the HPAC meeting were in opposition as well.
HPAC recommended that the proposal did not meet any of their historical context guidelines. As an advisory body, the commission does not have the authority to halt the project, nor was there a formal vote at the meeting, but every member expressed concerns about its size, impact, and design. As the Residences at Jibboom proposal is still undergoing California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review it won’t be for at least another three or four months that the plan goes before the planning commission, Whelan told Moonshine Ink. If the design passes the planning commission’s process, it will go before town council.
Longtime Truckeeite and self-described proud NIMBYer Ruth Cross, who has lived in town since 1972, was at the meeting and agrees wholeheartedly with Wightman’s comparison.
“His design looks exactly like the design on the freeway, the Marriott complex,” Cross told Moonshine Ink. “How would that look in that location? Five stories high with the fourth story being all concrete, so you’re walking by a concrete wall with a laundromat.”
Her design concerns don’t fall on entirely deaf ears from Whelan. “I’m not in love with [our] design,” he said. He concedes that the plan doesn’t meet historical context and that he will likely lower the number and size of units.
To address HPAC’s and community members’ concerns about historical integrity and design, Whelan has hired a new architect, Kurt Reinkins of MWA Architects, who will be hosting community roundtables starting Nov. 19 to discuss changes to the design. Currently invited to the first meeting are High Street neighbors Dan Cockrum and Ruth Hall, Seana Dohertry of the Mountain Housing Council, Alexis Ollar of Mountain Area Preservation, Stefanie Olivieri of Cabona’s, and Steve Frisch of the Sierra Business Council. Whelan is looking to also include a town planner and hopes that with a committee-style approach incorporating the main stakeholders paired with a fresh design sensibility, the community will begin to embrace the project.
Not all public comments in advance of the HPAC meeting, nor numerous other public comments the town has received, were solely about the Jibboom Street plans themselves. In fact, personal reactions to Whelan and comments on his past legal issues and development practices outside of the region have been frequent enough that Truckee town attorney Andrew Morris requested that, as far as HPAC and the town is concerned, they should be disregarded.
Moonshine Ink also received multiple tips from anonymous or off-the-record sources regarding Whelan and his properties being involved in a significant number of lawsuits, including one of fraud, and evictions that are seen by some Bay Area activists as unjust. Though Whelan sees this history as one of profiting and being successful as a developer within the confines of the law, community members in opposition are concerned that his history with evicting tenants before selling or converting a property shows a lack of investment in the community and its people, a mindset that they don’t want to see brought to the Tahoe/Truckee region.
“Who trusts the developer?” Whelan quipped in a meeting he had with Moonshine, making it clear that he was aware that he was never going to make everyone happy.
San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has a page dedicated to Whelan, alleging that in the Bay Area he has evicted tenants from at least 18 units, including elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people. At the height of a tenants-rights fervor in favor of reforming legal loopholes for developers, the San Francisco Examiner reported in 2013 that notable politicians including then-mayor Ed Lee, a majority of the board of supervisors, and San Francisco’s delegation to the state Legislature in Sacramento were heavily involved in protests and were outspoken against Whelan specifically, among other developers.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project accuses Whelan and an attorney he has hired, Andrew Zacks, of making intentional and unjust use of the Ellis Act, which allows landowners to evict on the premise that they are “going out of business,” only to reform a new company and still be in the same business.
Whelan, who himself was evicted when the San Francisco condo he was renting with his family changed hands, told Moonshine Ink that this is the way of the world. “In San Francisco, it’s like talking about abortion,” he said. “Nobody’s going to agree and somebody’s going to have a strong opinion one way or another with eviction and using the Ellis Act … [which is] a state law and it’s in place specifically for situations like that, where you’ve got a building owner that is in a money-losing proposition.”
Though in the Bay Area, Whelan was often displacing tenants, he viewed his practices as part of a vision “for the greater good” of the housing market, a philosophy he considers himself to be expanding on with his proposed development in this region. He claims that he focused on gearing his conversions from rental to for-sale properties on first-time buyers, not all-too-common in San Francisco, and that he would often give the current renters the first option to buy.
As justified as he feels, Whelan does admit that it’s a complicated issue, and one that’s a “daily topic” among San Francisco’s real estate community. While he says he can see both sides, ultimately, he believes in property and landowner rights.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Inspired by sustainable and forward-thinking housing projects in Portland and around the globe, Whelan wants to bring a new approach to his plans in Truckee for Jibboom Street, as well as an as-yet unnamed workforce housing project in Tahoe City on North Lake Boulevard near the new Dollar Creek development. Without the strict rent controls of San Francisco in addition to new statewide rent control legislation, Whelan considers the rental game in this area to be profitable. So he has picked up the mantle of the fight for affordable housing, density, and environmental solutions with Residences at Jibboom.
“Part of what keeps me going is I feel like I’m breaking new ground … I’m a little bit of a preacher and an evangelist and that’s where I perform best,” he said.
Whelan thinks his ideas on density with number of units, affordable housing options, and rideshare options and parking solutions fits into the likely more progressive 2040 downtown development plan still in the works.
“The problem is I’m ready to go now,” Whelan said. The Jibboom project is being reviewed under the active 2025 plan and Whelan and Sloan have been pushing the development already for two years. His plan calls for more units than the lot is currently zoned for; some units are zoned as downtown corridor allowing four residential units and some of the lots are zoned downtown mixed use which allows up to 24 units/acre, so Whelan’s ambitions to house local workforce people en masse would require a rezoning before moving forward. HPAC and the town have said that rezoning is possible for that lot.
Whelan’s team does not plan to let the HPAC setback get in their way, and Whelan is confident about his chances with the council. He thinks with the above-mentioned design changes he will be able to bring the planning commission to see the benefit of the project.
He counters naysayers that claim he isn’t invested in the area by saying that he’s lived here 10 years with his two kids in public school. Moreover he says he has a proven track record in restoring and renting out 13 units at the Wergland House, in Brickelltown. He says he was a hands-on landlord to workforce tenants for five years, including vacuuming and being the on-call handyman. He also experimented with what rent levels worked in this area, settling on charging between $850 to $1,325 a month, so he feels he has a grasp on what rents will be tenable at Jibboom. Whelan says he believes his vision for Truckee’s future is here to stay.
“There’s not that many people that are dumb enough to do what I do, because you know you get beat up, and I’m going to get beat up here a little bit,” Whelan said.
Main Image Caption: A HISTORY WITH HISTORICAL DOWNTOWN: Sean Whelan previously bought, renovated, and restored to its original purposed (as a boarding house in 1905) this renowned blue house in Brickelltown. He rented out the restored 13 units, and told Moonshine his track record as an understanding and hands-on landlord of that property shows how he would interact with and support his tenants in the much larger Jibboom Street project. Photo courtesy Leeder Real Estate