Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – With a half-dozen new housing and other projects in various stages of development, the City of Arcata is looking at them collectively in order to better regulate their creation and prepare for their impacts.
At a January study session, the Arcata City Council met with Humboldt State planners to get a comprehensive overview of projects in play. Most are located in walking proximity to the university, from close-by student housing to a project requiring annexation of part of the Arcata Bottom.
The projects will place fresh stress on the city’s infrastructure, from sewage to transportation, placing new urgency on planned upgrades to the wastewater treatment system while requiring updates of bus routes and trail plans. They also change the character of their neighborhoods in a big way – and neighbors were on hand to let the council know their concerns.
According to a staff report, the planned housing developments fall into three general categories based on their complexity:
• The latest version of Danco Group’s Creek Side Homes development is located on county land on the Arcata Bottom, west of Foster Avenue and north of Foster Avenue. It includes a 100-bed residential care facility, a 32-parcel low-density residential subdivision plus 25 cottages.
The project is still in the planning stages, with no application yet submitted. Previous versions of the Creek Side development have been rejected by the city.
General Plan/zoning amendments
• Strombeck Properties’ Canyon Creek project is located near Humboldt State between U.S. Highway 101 and Eye Street north of Larson Park. It would offer 78 residential units and require a General Plan amendment and zoning amendments.
• Los Angeles-based AMCAL Equities’ The Village is a mammoth, 240-unit, 800-bed student housing complex proposed for the current 8.5 acre Craftsman’s Mall site off St. Louis Road.
With four 50-foot-tall four-story buildings modeled after campus residence halls, the project would include parking, a fitness center, movie theater, Internet café and other student-oriented amenities. It seeks to occupy property now zoned Industrial Limited, which would have to be rezoned to Residential High Density.
The proposal was first aired at the Nov. 4, 2015 Arcata City Council meeting. At that time, it was agreed that given the project’s large scale, it deserved a broader examination, which led in part to last week’s meeting.
Three projects are principally permitted in their chosen sites, though they could require Planned Development Permits and Design Review sign-off.
• Open Door Community Health Center, with a new, non-residential facility located south of Sunset Avenue.
• Kramer Properties’ Sunset Terrace, a complex of 142 one-bedroom units. It has been approved by the Design Review Commission and is headed for the Planning Commission.
• Strombeck Properties’ 40-unit Twin Parks Apartments, located at the corner of Alliance Road and Foster Avenue near Shay Park.
Just for starters, the installation of so many residents with vehicles and other transportation needs across mid-Arcata is going to require a comprehensive traffic study. Costs might be offset by reimbursement from the new projects’ developers.
On hand to detail Humboldt State’s current thinking on the housing issue were Joyce Lopes, vice president of administrative affairs, and Peg Blake, vice president of student affairs.
Lopes said that a couple of factors have opened the CSU system to off-campus housing collaborations – the changing student demographic and stagnant budgets.
Today’s underclassmen are mostly not men – they’re 60 percent female. And with minority recruitment efforts having borne fruit, 39 percent are from low-income families, and 57 percent the first person in their family to attend college.
These students may need more support in order to be successful, making student-tailored housing desirable. But with HSU’s budgets still below 2007/8 levels, “public-private partnerships” are now in official favor as helping bring about the needed housing.
“Our business is higher education, not housing,” Lopes said. “Developers can offer more.”
David Loya, deputy director of community development, offered an overview of Arcata’s ever-shapeshifting housing market.
Home ownership rates for residents have declined over the past 15 years to just 33 percent. About 2,000 students live on the HSU campus, while 4,000 live in town. The combined total represents a whopping one-quarter of Arcata’s population.
Loya noted that Arcata’s development opportunities are confined to areas in and around its borders, so housing its future population has to occur via infill projects.
“There are limited sites left,” Loya said. “These are really the last hurrah.”
Mark Andre, deputy director of environmental services, said an expanding Arcata population will require more wastewater treatment capacity. The existing plant is at capacity and not performing consistently.
Two big problems are “nutrient loading” – the presence of organic matter in the water that must be filtered out before discharge into Humboldt Bay– and “I and I,” or inflow and infiltration, which is water leaking into sewage flow that doesn’t belong but must be processed. Of 12 million gallons the plant might process on a typical winter day, just two million were generated as wastewater. The rest leaked in to the system, taxing the processing plant.
Arcata’s celebrated hybrid waste treatment system consists of the traditional mechanized plant and the treatment ponds at the famed Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. While faltering, it is well understood and basically sound, Andre said.
“It’s wobbly, but the wheels haven’t fallen off,” he said. “It’s a great system.”
However, a massive overhaul and expansion of the venerable facility has been in the works for some time. In March, a consultant’s report will be available. It is likely to recommend a major – and costly – expansion in order to keep up with projected demand.
Doby Class, director of engineering, said the proposed developments will impact circulation, and require adaptations for the area’s transportation and circulatory systems – everything from bus routes to trails.
That will be done, he said, with “equal respect for all transportation systems.”
Traffic analyses will be performed, and the results used not just to pave the way for student cars. “We need to make it so you don’t need to do that,” Class said.
The studies will offer an opportunity to reapproach the chronically dysfunctional intersection of Sunset Avenue at G and H streets and L.K. Wood Boulevard, which is under Caltrans jurisdiction.
Even before studies are conducted, a few improvements are obvious. Arcata & Mad River Transit will likely add a stop on St. Louis Road north of The Village. Trail connectivity between the Skate Park and St. Louis Road must also be improved.
Neighbors voice concerns
The ambitious slate of developments unsettled a number of residents, who see the character of their neighborhoods changing in the shadow – sometimes literally – of the new developments.
Dave Meserve objected to the scale of The Village and its non-local developers, as well as its displacement of the Craftsman’s Mall, a funky warren of small artisan shops.
“I’d kind of hate to see that just go away,” Meserve said.
He wasn’t thrilled about Canyon Creek, either. Its 70 units basically doubles the population density of his neighborhood, he said. “Adding 70 more is just crazy,” he said. “It doesn’t fit the neighborhood. I think it’s really a greedy project.”
Several other speakers objected to the impacts of additional traffic, urbanization and even the pets students will bring in.
Not all speakers were critical of the new projects. One young woman spoke of the difficulty young professional HSU graduates have in finding somewhere to live. “Housing developments are crucial to keeping people here after graduation,” she said. “They’ll promote sustainable growth.”
Councilmembers appreciated the education, both from the experts and the citizens.
Councilmember Mark Wheetley said the university’s and the city’s growth are converging, and joint impact mitigation strategies will be needed.
Councilmembers Susan Ornelas and Sofia Pereira appreciated the opportunity to create “transit-oriented development” that could reduce vehicle dependence.
Traffic study authorized
At its Feb. 17 meeting, the Arcata City Council awarded a contract for a traffic study in anticipation of the expected housing boom in the Sunset, Foster and Alliance neighborhoods.
The $43,000 contract – with options to increase it to $49,200 – was given to W-Trans Traffic Consulting Engineering of Santa Rosa. Some of that cost will be recouped by charging developers of the housing projects whose impacts the study will analyze.
The study will focus on a number of intersections likely to be stressed by the increased use the projects would create. Those are the St. Louis Road/U.S. Highway 101 overpass; the L.K. Wood Boulevard/U.S. Highway 101 overpass; Sunset Avenue at L.K. Wood Boulevard; Sunset Avenue/U.S. Highway 101 northbound ramps; Sunset Avenue/U.S. Highway 101 southbound ramps at G and H streets; Sunset Avenue/Foster Avenue-Jay Street; and Foster Avenue/Alliance Road. The study will involve site visits and data collection, an evaluation of existing conditions, projections of future traffic and vehicular use; pedestrian, bicycle and transit use; and will culminate in a report and presentation to the city.