Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The principal players in the ongoing saga of the proposed The Village student housing project last week found themselves trudging and clambering about the landscape in hopes of understanding the project’s real-world details.
Their journey took them from the cozy couches of the College Creek Great Room to the hardscrabble gravelly wilds of the Craftsmans Mall to the peculiar pocket of Arcata that is Eye Street and finally, good old City Council Chamber.
After all the scoping, by week’s end, the proposed student housing project’s fortunes were looking uncertain. The City Council will next take up the matter July 11, likely putting the matter over to a special July 17 session.
Humboldt State hearing
The Villaging got underway Monday night in Humboldt State’s luxurious College Creek Great Room. Presenting the case for the project were Doug Dawes, HSU vice president for Administration and Finance; Stephen St. Onge, director of Housing and Residence Life; Todd Larsen, associate director for Business Operations; Chant’e Catt, student housing advocate; and David Moon, project developer.
After sweetening up attendees with a table of cookies and brownies, the officials outlined the university’s intentions for the project.
St. Onge said HSU is developing a management plan for The Village, which would be integrated into the university’s residential housing stock. An additional University Police officer would be hired to help assert a visible security presence at the facility.
Larson called HSU’s Housing and Residential Life program “a phenomenal success machine,” that improves students’ chances to succeed, but one that presently provides just 2,049 beds for 8,000 students.
Catt described her ordeal in finding housing, noting that up to 19 percent of students are homeless, even with a dip in enrollment. “This is reality and I’m not the only student going through this,” Catt said.
John Bergenske, representing Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing (ACRH), questioned the economic burden for students, saying “this project doesn’t seem to solve that problem.”
Catt said that the revised project,with the initial “bells and whistles” removed, would be about 10 percent cheaper than on-campus dorms, but with utilities paid and within walking distance to school.
“I challenge you to find a place for $580 with Wi-Fi,” she said, citing the price for a double-occupancy room. She said trailers are being rented for $1,000 per month.
St. Onge said the university is attempting to build on-campus housing for freshman-year students, while The Village is designed for upperclassmen.
Bergenske asked whether the university would commit to never buying The Village, but St. Onge said that it has “no current interest” in doing so. “I can’t speak for 40 years down the road,” he said. He noted that whoever owns the site will pay 8 percent local property tax, in perpetuity.
Moon confirmed this, and said that the developers have agreed to make further payments to help pay for fire services as well.
Citizen Jane Woodward offered multiple comments, and proposed alternative housing sites. She said the disused Trinity Hospital site known as The Annex would be ideal. “That would get rid of all these externalities; you’d have tremendous support from the community; it would be a non-issue; you own it already,” she said. “The community would love it. You wouldn’t have any of these problems.”
St. Onge said The Annex is being used as a staging spot for the next year-and-a-half for seismic retrofit projects. An HSU spokesman later said that the single city block occupied by The Annex isn’t big enough for a student housing project.
Bergenske said the “really jolly narrative” being projected by The Village advocates was belied by the Public Records Act request that revealed HSU’s duplicitous emails with the developers. Also, he said, the Turlock group opposing a similar project known as The Vista has indicated “a lot of problems with a very similar facility.”
“Trust has been harmed,” Bergenske said. “There’s some deep wounds here.”
Citizen Kimberly Tays also dwelled on the revelatory emails. She also wanted to know what was in the multiple redacted pages in the university’s response. “You lied to the public,” Tays said. “The university owes the public an apology.”
St. Onge said HSU was telling the truth about not being involved in the project, and that the dialogue didn’t involve any partnership with the developers at the time. It wasn’t until after the conclusion of Planning Commission hearings that the university ramped up its involvement, he said. “There was no agreement,” he said. The redactions were proprietary financial information.
Moon addressed the matter of not paying prevailing wage for labor, because doing so would increase the project’s cost by 30 percent and require labor to be imported from the Bay Area. As it is, he said, the project will involve hiring numerous local tradespeople.
Citizen Alex Stillman said universities are looking for ways to build housing, and “this is one creative way.”
She said ACRH “got everything you wanted” in terms of downsizing of the project’s scale and density, “and now you’re being a NIMBY. It’s crazy.” Without the students and the university “economic engine for Arcata,” Stillman said, “We’d have nothing.”
Woodward suggested another alternative site, that being Arcata’s 20-acre Happy Valley parcel located off West End Road, slated for development as an industrial park. She said it has good connectivity via Arcata Community Forest Trails. “They could hike, they could walk,” she said. “It is a viable option.”
Community Development Director David Loya later said Happy Valley “really isn’t the best infill site for that purpose.” Though it does have access to the Ridge Trail, it’s roughly 2.5 miles by trail to the center of campus on the trail with an elevation gain of about 470 feet halfway and an approximate 400-foot drop back into HSU.
“This route also might prove problematic for the citizens concerned about student safety walking to and from school (especially those who raised concerns about women walking alone – especially those concerned about trail lighting (no trail lighting is proposed in the forest).”
Walking distance from West End Road to St. Louis Road and then L.K. Wood Boulevard to HSU is 1.75 miles.
Bergenske denied NIMBYism. He said ACRH objects to an all-student facility “embedded” in three surrounding residential neighborhoods. It favors an alternative housing project developed by Greenway Partners, which offers a “blended” development with a more diverse population.
Moon said he didn’t understand the economics of the ACRH alternative plan. “I don’t think they work,” he said.
In any event, Stillman said, “You aren’t going to be able to force people to do it.”
Council field trip, aftermath
The next day, the City Council held a partly mobile meeting, touring the Craftsmans Mall project site, adjacent trail routes, Eye Street and Maple Lane in Westwood. Accompanied by city staff, a developer team and a couple of dozen citizens, the council inspected aspects of the project including drainage, connectivity and proximity to adjacent residents.
Once back at Council Chamber, the council further reviewed the project. Loya said traffic impacts basically boil down to longer waits at stop signs, with traverses of L.K. Wood Boulevard increased by 24 seconds and traffic at Foster Avenue and Alliance Road delayed by 10 seconds.
The four-person council pondering the matter offered their reflections. Councilmember Susan Ornelas had previously signaled her opposition to the project based on its generic design and now, the large, exclusively student population. She prefers on-campus student housing.
“It would be very difficult for me to support this project as it stands,” Ornelas said.
Her “no” vote would require all three other councilmembers to approve The Village, but that’s far from certain to occur.
Councilmember Paul Pitino appeared supportive, stating that any housing project built near the campus is likely to end up dominated by students.
Mayor Sofia Pereira expressed no position. Vice Mayor Brett Watson sounded dubious, basing his skepticism on objections by adjacent residents. He said he hadn’t seen any evidence that an off-campus housing project like The Village would be good for neighbors or students.
“I think it’s a great project, if it was on campus,” Watson said.