Note: This story appeared in the May 16 edition of the Union. Updates appear at the end of the story. – Ed.
Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – An even-numbered Planning Commission last week deadlocked 2–2 on approval of findings required for The Village student housing complex. But that doesn’t end consideration of the 700-bed project – it just bounces it upstairs to the City Council, where it was destined to go all along.
When it gets there, the council will also be even-numbered and subject to decisionmaking paralysis. Councilmember Michael Winkler will sit the matter out over conflict-of-interest issues, since he has long served as an energy consultant for AMCAL, the project’s developer.
Due to strong criticism by neighbors and others who formed an opposition group called Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing (ACRH), the project had followed a herky-jerky path to possible approval by the Planco.
Still, The Village looked set for signoff. On Dec. 5, the a straw vote on whether the present Craftsman’s Mall site should be redeveloped into multi-family housing brought unanimous approval. On Feb. 27, a majority of the Planco found that the social and economic benefits of housing outweighed traffic impacts and recommended approval of the project pending approval of its EIR and other documents.
Last week, the commission had before it three resolutions. They included the EIR; a Statement of Overriding Consideration stating that the project’s benefits outweigh its unavoidable impacts; General Plan and zoning amendments; various permits; and a Development Agreement which included a $75,000 impact fee.
ACRH had asked that its alternative housing development proposal be included in the EIR as a medium-density residential project alternative. But to be considered an alternative, it would have to meet The Village project’s objectives, and a staff report states that it fell short in several areas, from density to recreational opportunities and provision of student housing. The staff analysis also found that environmental and traffic impacts would be about the same with the ACRH proposal.
Community Development Director David Loya told the commission that while the city could include the ACRH proposal as an alternative, it can’t make the developer build someone else’s project.
During Oral Communication, Westwood area resident Steve Martin said AMCAL’s principal objective was making money – something not listed on the project description.
“Who gets to set those objectives for that parcel of land?” he asked, saying the choice was between Arcata residents and an “out-of-town corporation.”
“What are the city’s – the community’s – goals and objectives for this land?” he asked.
Connie Stewart, a former planning commissioner, city councilmember and now executive director of Humboldt State’s California Center for Rural Policy, urged approval of The Village. Alluding to the housing crisis, she said that “I’m grateful someone has come from out of town to help us solve this crisis.”
Erik Jules, ACRH board president, said that The Village fails to meet required goals and objectives as well. He asserted that the massive project would discourage home ownership in the area and instead increase rental units. He also cited studies indicating that privatized dormitories induce higher rents, negatively impacting the town for students and others.
Former Councilmember Alex Stillman said students of color have a hard time finding rentals, and that The Village would offer equal opportunity housing for students. “I just want you to think about a place that would allow students of color to actually live,” she said.
Citizen Jack Roscoe said it didn’t make sense to build the project before required traffic improvements could be installed.
Citizen J.B. Mathers said The Village would reduce vehicle use on overburdened L.K. Wood Boulevard.
Maple Lane resident Bonnie MacRaith said her property value would drop were The Village to be created and loom over her neighborhood. “The height of this is overwhelming for us. It makes us feel small and unimportant,” she said. She urged consideration of the ACRH alternative.
ACRH Director John Bergenske said that two “business entities” had told the group that they would be willing to build the alternative proposal. He said the “well qualified entities” refused to allow themselves to be identified “out of respect for the applicant,” but were following the matter closely.
Commissioner Judith Mayer said that whatever the Planco were to decide, the matter would wind up at the City Council. Even if rejected, she said, it would likely be appealed.
She said the city has previously rejected development proposals with fewer impacts than The Village, and that the Development Agreement was problematic. But, she said, she was in favor of approving the project with concerns for the council to consider.
Chair Dan Tangney said the project had given the Planco an opportunity to ponder the city’s “outdated” infill strategies, and that the Planco was faced with “putting the cart before the horse.”
Tangney and Commissioner John Barstow said that it would have been good to hear from Humboldt State University on the matter, since The Village is intended to house its students.
The first resolution, regarding the EIR, passed unanimously, though Mayer seemed to waver or pause before voting yes. But the second one, approving General Plan and zoning amendments, was tied 2–2, with Tangney and Mayer opposing, effectively making it a failed motion.
Tangney said the resolution made a statement of compatibility with adjoining land uses that he couldn’t support.
“I’ve never, throughout this whole process, thought that the neighborhood compatibility issue was intact,” he said. “And here it is in a finding, and I can’t make that finding. If I can’t make that finding, I can’t pass the resolution.”
Tangney said that while the project was downsized from 800 to 700 students (with the removal of a fourth floor on the side facing Maple Lane), and made some landscaping changes, it was basically the same.
“Basically we have the same elephant in the room that we started with, and the same community impact issues that we’ve batted around, and that’s where I am.”
Mayer said that if the project had fulfilled a “clear infill policy” and a statement of goals for student housing that The Village could fulfill, that would be a different story.
A third resolution recommending all the required permits and agreements also failed on a 2–2 vote.
The Planco’s negative recommendation will next be forwarded to the City Council. That body too will be slightly hobbled by the recusal of Councilmember Michael Winkler, a longtime energy consultant to The Village’s developer, AMCAL.
Following the meeting, David Moon, president of Coleraine Capital Group, Inc., forwarded the following statement:
“The Planning Commission unanimously recommended to City Council that they approve the EIR and all its findings, but were evenly split on a recommendation to change the zoning. Note: there are 6 Planning Commissioners. One of the six was forced to recuse herself because her firm was hired by the local landlord opposition (ACRH) to design an ‘alternative plan’. Another Planning Commissioner could not attend at the last minute due to a family emergency.
Arcata deserves an inclusive, high quality, professionally managed student housing community, not only to help alleviate the massive housing shortage that exists, but also to support the economic future of Arcata and Humboldt State University. HSU students deserve more and better housing options than what is currently being offered in the off-campus housing market. We look forward to presenting The Village student housing community plans and benefits to the City Council.”
The City Council takes up the matter at its Wednesday, June 6 meeting. ACRH is urging its members to show up and share their feelings with the council.