Union Editorial: Approve The Village

Two-story buildings in The Village, created in response to citizen demand. City of Arcata image

The current, third version of the massively revised “The Village” student housing project deserves approval by the Arcata City Council. It’s a good project.

Recent upgrades to the project have ameliorated its biggest problems – the initially overwhelming scale and the cruel impacts it posed to residents of Maple Lane. Those were genuine dealbreakers that had to be addressed and have been, along with other major issues.   

The Village has seen its population of students cut by almost one-fourth, to 602 students – a reasonable size for an 11-acre patch of land. The four-story buildings looming over Maple Lane have been cut in half to two stories and moved much farther away – 100 yards, literally the length of a football field – from that Westwood-area street than the current Craftsmans Mall structures are.

The rest of the impacts are fully absorbable. They represent the price of living in a town which must grow but whose outward expansion is physically limited.

Arcata can’t expand to the north or south for obvious reasons. Developing westward would both pave over agricultural land and place development in lowlands threatened by imminent sea level rise. Growing eastward would require eliminating hard-won public forest lands.

So, there’s nowhere to go but in, and up – in other words, infill, as described in Arcata’s General Plan. Infill by definition influences existing neighborhoods. Every neighborhood in Arcata lives with impacts from adjacent land uses, whether next to the bay, the forest, the Arcata Bottom, downtown or the suburbs.   

Even though it has done its bureaucratic best to galvanize the opposition with clumsily secretive tactics, the fact remains that Humboldt State University – the backbone of Arcata’s economy – deeply needs new residential facilities for its students. It is building a residence hall for freshmen on campus, and there’s no logical reason why the Craftsmans Mall site oughtn’t be put to this productive use for the university’s upperclassmen.

Opponents of The Village have fought the good fight and wrung key concessions from the developers. For this they deserve all Arcata’s credit and gratitude. Their initial principled advocacy has helped shape an excellent project that makes a 602-unit dent in Arcata's housing crises – the one afflicting students and families, veterans, the elderly and others. Imagine more than 600 housing units opening up across Northern Humboldt after the students move in to The Village

Now that The Village’s excesses have been blunted, Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing (ACRH) has an opportunity to model reasonableness – to acknowledge the major improvements, recognize the value of compromise, declare victory and move on.

But whether because of human nature – not taking yes for an answer and sticking to an entrenched position – or other reasons, the group has continued to move the goalposts, retreating to increasingly abstruse and contrived, sometimes bombastic and fearful arguments against this worthy housing project. For example:

ACRH’s contention that adding 602 new housing units will drive rents up rather than down is peculiar, contradicting laws of supply and demand. So is its assertion that The Village’s student residents would be drawn out of Eureka, McKinleyville and Fortuna rentals rather than Arcata.

ACRH terms the whopping 25 percent reduction in student residents – from 800 to 602 – as a “slight” downsizing. Inexcusably, more than a month after the project was radically revised and downsized, ACRH continued to misleadingly advertise The Village on its website as having four-story buildings and 800 students. This week, it removed the outdated information, but replaced it with a spreadsheet rather than the updated plan that includes all the requested alterations that the project now incorporates.

ACRH's Articles of Incorporation, filed Jan. 23.

ACRH’s responses to AMCAL’s July 5 letter to the City Council are confounding. One is that the developer’s claim of having addressed key objections is false, because the list of problems was compiled before ACRH formed. States ACRH: "That letter (dated Jan. 23), which we’ve included below, was written BEFORE we even formed ACRH! It didn’t, and doesn’t, represent ACRH."

That’s a non sequitur. It's also not factual. ACRH was formed the same day that Jules sent the letter to AMCAL. Its Articles of Incorporation were filed Jan. 23 by an attorney who works at the same law firm, Janssen Malloy LLP, which has represented local developer/landlord Steve Strombeck before the Planning Commission during hearings on The Village.

The document lists Janssen Malloy LLP's office at 730 Fifth St. in Eureka as the street address for this supposed Arcata-based grassroots housing advocacy group.  

The serious issues of density, building height, population parking, traffic, connectivity, sewage treatment and HSU involvement which have since been mitigated were the very real ones the current ACRH members and neighbors so stridently raised with the Planning Commission. Now that these issues are essentially solved, the group downplays their significance.

Call us cynical, but we’ve been reporting on developments in Arcata for too long not to notice that these and other tactics are less consistent with solution-seeking grassroots activism than with preserving current rental rates and the Craftsmans Mall site for development by the group’s dark money developer donor(s), whom it refuses to identify.

ACRH presents itself as a grassroots movement, and in part, it certainly is. It also has deep involvement by those with a financial interest in maintaining the status quo. It looks very much as though these murky actors are playing on the fears of neighboring residents to serve their own ends.

Now that the principal objections, voiced Jan. 23, have been met, ACRH has resorted to blind opposition to this project, paving the way for a different one. The group has already stated that it has two developers lined up to build its alternative project at the site, but won't say who they are. Circumstantially, a reasonable argument can be made that ACRH is acting on behalf of one of these developers rather than regular folks.

ACRH members who have donated $25, $50, $100 of their earnings to the group as a grassroots organization advocating for their issues have both solid reasons and every right to question its directors as to whom they are really representing, which developers are funding it and what their financial support consists of. Starkly put, is ACRH exploiting and misleading its citizen members as to its real goals?

We don’t wish to demonize developers and landlords. They’ve worked hard over time to supply Arcata with quality housing, and it’s only natural to want to protect one’s revenue streams. But those business self-interests may not be the same as the needs of greater Arcata and its people.

Concerned neighbors have to be realistic about the fact that the Craftsmans Mall site is going to be developed, and almost certainly into housing. If not by The Village this year, then a different huge project next year.

Virtually any development at the site will come with some of the same issues of traffic, noise, non-resident ownership and more. Will the City Council and ACRH be as active and militant in holding it to the same standards they’re imposing on The Village? If so, what could ever be built there?

If the new standard for housing developments is undiluted approval by neighbors, then Arcata has entered a state of zero growth. Virtually every major development we now consider key to Arcata – the United Indian Health Services facility, the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, even Humboldt State itself as a few examples – stirred initial protests by neighbors and others. Now, they’re fully accepted, even cherished Arcata institutions.

The insistence that the site host “blended” housing ignores the fact that at least four other such housing developments with a population well in excess of The Village have been built or are planned for the Sunset area.

There’s no logical reason why a residential facility is better on one side of the campus’s border than the other. Nor is there any reason not to build specialized student housing. We have low-income housing, senior housing and special needs housing. Why not student housing?

University upperclassmen are looking toward graduation – they want and need a clean, safe, inclusive, modern, well-patrolled, environmentally friendly, supervised and study-optimized living situation free from non-academic distractions. The Village offers Arcata all this in a near-turnkey facility that doesn’t require massive public investment and will be professionally managed by the university’s experienced housing team. 

Arcata, America and the world need educated people. To help accomplish this, Humboldt State University needs modern student residences. Arcata needs to work cooperatively with Humboldt State. Arcata needs The Village.

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