Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The proposed “The Village” student housing project will finally reach the City Council June 6 after failing to gain the endorsement of the Planning Commission. The council hearing will be a public culmination of extensive behind-the-scenes preparation by both advocates and opponents – much of it purposefully kept out of public view.
The Village would provide 700 beds for Humboldt State students in four buildings to be sited at the present 11-acre Craftsmans Mall site on St. Louis Road. The location borders several residential neighborhoods. It would be privately financed and constructed by Coleraine Capital Group and its development partner AMCAL Equities.
Though The Village would house a substantial portion of Humboldt State’s student body, the university has been mostly missing in action throughout the 11 Planning Commission meetings on the subject.
HSU’s public communications on the subject have been negligible, vague and seemingly indifferent as to The Village’s fortunes.
A Nov. 2, 2015 letter from then-Vice President Joyce Lopes states that, “While we are not in a position to make a specific recommendation regarding individual projects, we generally favor efforts to provide additional options for quality housing for our students.”
A Dec. 18, 2017 letter from President Lisa Rossbacher is only slightly more specific. States Rossbacher, “...HSU supports the concept of the Village project and other projects that will increase access to appropriate housing for our students…”
Planning Commissioners and members of the public have openly wondered about the hands-off attitude of the university, which would be deeply affected by The Village.
Those asking HSU about its position on the project, or whether it was coordinating with the developers were told HSU had nothing to do with it and referred to the developers.
Even as they issued bland public statements and expressions of disinterest, a variety of HSU officials were simultaneously creating a separate and contradictory public record of emails indicating ongoing, intensive involvement with the project and its developers dating back to when The Village was first announced in 2016.
As revealed in the emails, the university’s goals include a keen interest in advancing the project – and perhaps to eventually purchase it.
A range of top university officials across several departments – including those who issued the denials as well as Rossbacher and her lieutenants – have been coordinating closely with Coleraine/AMCAL on the mammoth project’s features, its financial details and ways to drum up support.
Along with the continuing dialogue, HSU has been monitoring press reports, social media comment and the efforts by Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing (ACRH) to create an alternative project and halt The Village.
It has also facilitated meetings between the developer and students to expedite their supposedly grassroots advocacy for the new housing project.
The university’s involvement is partly detailed in emails obtained via a Public Records Act request filed by the ACRH. A 369-page compilation of internal and other communications includes some large redactions, and also alludes to meetings between various entities which aren’t documented.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that Humboldt State is deeply interested in seeing The Village approved and built, and that it is actively researching mechanisms by which it might acquire the facility. Going about creation of student housing in this manner would save the university millions of dollars, according to ACRH.
Were the California State University system to build The Village, it would have to pay prevailing wage for the labor involved. But AMCAL does not. That, according to ACRH, could cut the project’s cost by as much as 20 percent or more.
The messages obtained by ACRH reveal wide-ranging interest in many aspects of the project, close coordination with the developers and continuing scrutiny of opponents – and public denials of any association.
On Nov. 8, Maureen Jules wrote Stephen St. Onge, director of housing & residence life, asking whether HSU would have any presence at the upcoming Planning Commission meetings regarding The Village.
“I appreciate your message, however I would have to refer you back to the developer or the city for a discussion of your points,“ he replied. This was to prove a standard response to The Village-related inquiries.
On Nov. 20 at 3:36 p.m., an HSU professor wrote Wayne Brumfield, vice president for student affairs. “Do you have any insight on the university's coordination/communication (if any) with the 800 bed facility that a private firm is hoping to build at the Craftsmen Mall adjacent to HWY 101 in Arcata?” the professor asked.
Earlier that same day, at 9:15 a.m., Brumfield had been cc’d a message from Craig Wruck, vice president for University Advancement with observations of Village opponents.
“This weekend volunteers were canvassing the neighborhoods surround the Craftsman Mall urging attendance at the Arcata City Planning Commission meeting on 11/28. Attached is the handout they were distributing,” Wruck told Rossbacher and five other HSU officials. “While the text is confusing on some points, it does not explicitly label this as an HSU project and we do not see a reason to respond or ask for corrections. We will continue to monitor the social media channels.” Note: a concerned resident photographed the flyer distributors; see below. – Ed.
“Thank [sic] Craig for the update,” Brumfield responded at 10:41 a.m. But the next day, Brumfield answered the professor’s question about the project with a non-denial denial about HSU involvement:
“Good afternoon Mark, you’re correct, this is a private developer building this project. This project has nothing to do with HSU.”
On Dec. 3, David Moon, president of Coleraine Capitol Group, wrote St. Onge, Brumfield and others relating that he was “disheartened,” with “deep concerns regarding the trajectory of the Planning Commission deliberations.”
Moon lamented that the reaction in Arcata, as contrasted with other towns in which his group has built student housing “could not be more opposite than the than the receptions we received in those other communities.”
He suggested that some opponents “have a vested interest” in opposing the project – apparently alluding to rival developers – and said he expected more support from the community. He asked Humboldt State representatives to appear at the next Planco meeting to “promote” the project, and to be put in touch with supportive student groups.
On Dec. 8, Wruck wrote Brumfield, Douglas Dawes, vice president for finance and administration, Frank Whitlach, associate vice president of marketing and communication, and Lola Alto, HSU Advancement Foundation board coordinator.
He proposed that a group meeting be held to prepare for the Dec. 12 Planning Commission meeting and included for background links to city online documents, plus a Union story describing the harsh reception the project was given by members of the public at the first Planco meeting about it.
A Dec. 12, 2017 email from Dawes asked David Loya, Arcata’s director of Community Development, to share with the Planning Commission a general statement of support for “affordable, quality student housing near campus to support student access and success.” It includes no specific endorsement of The Village.
Within two hours, Wruck responded and cc’d a draft of a more direct expression of support:
“That’s not the strong statement we discussed at Cabinet. Frank, Connie Stewart and I were going to discuss the following language with you and Wayne this afternoon:
‘Obviously, the City of Arcata will need to make its own determination if the Village project is the right fit. There is much to consider, and many details about the proposed project that we at Humboldt State University do not know.
‘That said, HSU students need accessible and quality housing. They have been very clear about that. There simply is not enough housing available for our students on campus and in the community, and this impacts our ability to recruit and retain students.
‘Because of that reality, HSU supports the concept of the Village project. From what we have heard from the developer and from what we have read in the project proposal, it would be positive for our students. It would mean quality housing close to campus for about 800 students.’"
Concludes Wruck, "I'm afraid the message you've sent to the City of Arcata is the same as the University's previous statements and does not help move this forward.”
In January, a message from St. Onge to Janessa Lund, executive director of Associated Students, Brumfield and Moon states in part, “Dr. Brumfield has explained that there is a group of students represented through AS (Associated Students) interested in speaking to the developer of the proposed Village Housing Project.”
The message proposes dates and times for an open forum with students and The Village’s developer, one that did later take place.
An email shared by President Rossbacher in March of this year includes a link to a Union story about ACRH and its alternative project. “We had a good discussion regarding this group in our City/HSU Liaison Meeting Friday,” Dawes wrote. “I have never seen anything like this before. Very interesting.”
“Yes I have been following this group. Very interesting strategy! (Financed by a local landlord)” St. Onge wrote.
“A creative weaponization of the design charette concept,” Wruck wrote.
A $100 million dangle
Even before the Planning Commission began considering the project, the developers were wooing Humboldt State with a plan under which the university could eventually acquire The Village and make a lot of money off it.
Last Oct. 31, David Moon, president of Coleraine Capitol, wrote St. Onge, Dawes, Brumfield and Michael Fisher, associate director of Planning and Design. Moon alluded to a meeting with HSU officials the previous week and mentions a “tax-exempt bond program” soon to be presented to CSU Stanislaus regarding his group’s Vista housing project in Turlock.
“The program will provide the University with the opportunity to share in surplus project cash flow (in excess of $100 Million) over the term of the bonds (35 years) and to have the buildings gifted to the University debt free at bond maturity,” Moon stated.
Noting that he’ll be in town for a Planco meeting on The Village, Moon says that “We would be happy to meet with you that week to discuss the bond program if you have interest.”
By January, Moon and the university were deep into financial projections for The Village as well as details of the bond program. Todd Larsen, associate director of Business Operations, asked a series of questions about the project of Stephen Clarke, AMCAL director of market rate housing.
The answers were provided in an email attachment which was not included in the records provided to ACRH. “As you know, there is still a lot up in the air about what shape the project will ultimately take when it’s finally approved by the City. But, we really like this bond execution and have presented it to give you an idea of the program and the benefits that could be derived by HSU,” Clarke told Larsen.
The bond would be facilitated by the California Public Finance Authority, which promotes developments via low-cost bonds, both tax-exempt and taxable.
In January, Larsen asked Clarke a series of questions, including, “Were you planning on California Prevailing Wages in the construction? If not, would a potential affiliation agreement from us cause you to be required to use Prevailing Wages for construction?”
Some opponents have contended that The Village proponents are interested in avoiding prevailing wages and lowering the project’s overall cost.
Larsen also asks about financial models and possible tax liability for the project, as well as whether the project could legally be internally reconfigured and whether bond finances include occupancy restrictions.
Clarke’s responses to the questions appear to be redacted, but he does tell Larsen, “Looking forward to the possibility of proceeding jointly on the much needed project.”
Also in January, Dawes asked Clarke, “Do you have an example/sample tax exempt bond financing agreement that we can begin to review and start vetting with stakeholders on campus and at the CSU Chancellor’s Office?”
On Jan. 12, Larsen asked Moon a number of detailed financial and legal questions, one of which is, “We want to confirm that there are about 220 single rooms that could be converted to doubles. You also mentioned studios that could be made into doubles — how many?”
That passage dismays members of ACRH. They say that reformatting rooms in The Village to double their occupancy invalidates the 700-student premise under which approval is being sought. It also makes irrelevant the CEQA analysis, including potential traffic impacts, which are based on a 700-student population.
And, claim ACRHers, looking for ways to cram more people into the buildings isn’t consistent with the university’s stated goal of developing the highest-quality housing for students.
In March, Larsen was contacted by a reporter for ConstructionWire, an online publication, asking about The Village. “Humboldt State University has nothing to do with this private development,” responded Larsen. “The contact would always be AMCAL. I would recommend you reach out to them as the University is not involved in any way.”
In February, Clarke sent along an attachment (which was redacted) with a note stating, “Attached please find the model in Excel. Let’s work together this week to get this dialed in to where it works for you and us.”
Along with multimillion-dollar financing, HSU and the developers were also discussing minute details of The Village and helping shape the project.
Email exchanges last fall involve the university providing Coleraine technical minutia about the existing College Creek residence halls’ HVAC system.
In February, the university was asking the developers what type of laundry machines they used in their other projects – coin op or e-payment.
Throughout the process, Humboldt State also works with its housing consultant, Brailsford & Dunlavey, Inc. to help inform the dialogue with the developers.
Humboldt State responds
Wruck, a key coordinator at the center of much of the email traffic, was out of town Friday and not available for comment. Wruck also serves on Arcata's Economic Development Committee.
Asked about the disparity between HSU’s public protestations of no association with The Village and the intensive private coordination with its developers, Frank Whitlach, associate vice president of marketing and communications, termed it a “two-track discussion.”
The first track, he said, is Coleraine/AMCAL asking questions about the development proposal, attempting to refine and optimize it.
The second track was the investigation into “another possible approach” by the university – in other words, an affiliation of some sort.
But, Whitlach noted, “That has never led to a viable proposal” of partnership on the project. Anything like that, he said, “would require a lot more involvement by the university.”
Asked why the university wasn’t more open about its talks with the developers, he said many of the discussions were sensitive and “not what we were ready to share publicly.”
David Moon of Coleraine offered comment on the emails and the project last Friday. He staunchly defended The Village, and the communications with Humboldt State.
“It’s the due diligence that they’re obligated to do,” he said of HSU's cooperation. “The community, the students, their guardians and support networks deserve inclusive, high-quality, professionally managed student housing.”
Moon said that building the project and then selling it is an option, but not the overarching goal. He said that AMCAL has created about 80 properties, but has only sold three or four of them. “That’s not our business plan,” he said. “We always approach the universities to learn how to best serve the students and the universities.”
Also on Friday, Boardmembers of ACRH were still analyzing the revelatory emails. But their core objections remain the project’s scale and negative impacts on adjacent neighborhoods and the community at large.
Boardmember John Bergenske described The Village as ill-conceived on all levels, from its massive size to the effects it will have on housing and adjacent neighborhoods. He said ACRH is pushing for an inclusive development rather than a huge, exclusive dormitory.
Maureen Jules cited a 2012 British study indicating that installation of a large student housing complex can have all kinds of adverse effects on host communities, including boosting alienation and bad feelings between students and the community.
The group is especially concerned about the legitimacy of the many redactions in the HSU emails, and may seek to have some of the blacked-out pages reconsidered for release.
“We’re incredibly curious about the redactions,” Bergenske said. “It propagates that hiding. Please, come clean – let’s have an adult conversation.”
There’s no telling where the money’s from
At the same time, ACRH keeps some of its own key details close to the vest as well. Mainly, who is funding it. That remains undisclosed.
Bergenske said most of ACRH’s funding comes from citizens who make small donations, and brandished a $100 check from a private citizen as an example. “Eighty percent are people who are just ‘us’,” he said.
He acknowledged that a “vast minority” of developers have given ACRH financial support, but that they have “selected to do so anonymously.”
To many, all signs point to developer Steve Strombeck as ACRH’s financial angel.
Strombeck representatives have avidly attended the Planco meetings, sometimes advocating for a pause in consideration of the The Village so that a comprehensive development plan for the area around the Craftsman’s Mall could be created.
In the HSU emails, St. Onge refers to flyer distribution “financed by a local landlord” – almost certainly Strombeck, who owns multiple affordable housing complexes in Arcata, including the new Canyon Creek development just south of The Village site.
A message to Strombeck asking about any tie-in with ACRH went unreturned.
Arcata project planning and management group Greenway Partners hosted multiple community meetings, including a design charette, and created development plans for ACRH’s project alternative – obviously a costly scope of work for a grassroots group to fund.
ACRH readily disclosed the fees paid to Greenway, stating it donated $11,500 in labor and charged ACRH $3,500. “They did a $15,000 job for $3,500,” Maureen Jules said.
“I don’t have any involvement with him [Strombeck] on any personal or professional level,” said Kirk Cohune, principal with Greenway. “We’ve had no payment from anyone but ACRH.”
As a few minutes of online searches quickly reveal, associations between the ACRH members and Strombeck are many, even for a small community with reduced degrees of separation.
Bergenske, for example, previously owned a portion of LACO Associates, which he sold four years ago, ending his relationship with the company. LACO employees have attended Planco meetings and described Strombeck’s wish for a pause in consideration of The Village.
James and Edythe Vaissade are co-organizers of Redwood Capital Bank, on whose Board of Directors Strombeck serves. Vaissade has spoken out against The Village, and her daughter Julie is one of ACRH’s three boardmembers. The bank has also funded Greenway projects. Julie Vaissade-Elcock terms any perceived connection "quite a stretch."
Strombeck is a client of attorney Tim Needham of Eureka-based Janssen Malloy LLP, and Needham has spoken on Strombeck’s behalf regarding The Village. ACRH’s articles of incorporation as a non-profit corporation were filed on Jan. 23 by Jeffrey Slack, a staff attorney with Janssen Malloy.
But that’s all circumstantial, and not definitive proof of any financial alliance between Strombeck and ACRH.
ACRH has stated that it has two offers on the table from local developers willing to build its Greenway-forged alternative project. It won’t identify them, at their request.
It’s not clear how or if the alternative project might be supported by Craftsman’s Mall owner Nancy Kirkpatrick. She, through her attorney Bill Barnum, declined comment.
Bergenske is open about having asked area developers for support, “We have reached out to all of the local developers for donations, and business entities,” he said.
Bergenske was concerned that the citizen-donors could become disillusioned if they thought of themselves being allied with a well-to-do developer. And besides, the financial backers aren’t calling any shots for the group.
“The three of us here are the only ones making decisions for ACRH,” Bergenske said, referring to himself, Vaissaide-Elcock and Boardmember Erik Jules. “I have no interest in helping out developers. I want to help my community.”
Maureen Jules, who has devoted a lot of her personal time to ACRH, said she was “insulted” by any suggestion that she and the group might be doing the bidding of a local developer.
“I’m frustrated that because I volunteer my time to ACRH, an non-profit required to protect anonymous donations, that this Strombeck suspicion threatens to nullify my efforts and the efforts of countless other neighbors and ACRH members," she said. "I'm volunteering for this group because individuals weren’t being listened to and because I care about my neighborhood, our community and students. This proposal threatens to restructure the student experience and a large part of Arcata. We deserve to discuss this with all the stakeholders involved, including HSU."
Summarized Jules, "ACRH doesn't represent Strombeck. ACRH is controlled by its three board members."
“This is an organic process,” Vaissade-Elcock said.
Bergenske maintains that local landlords want The Village built, because it will ultimately have the effect of driving up rents locally. “They’re going to make more money,” he said. “They support The Village.”
ACRH maintains that the 700 new beds will draw students away from undesirable rentals mostly in McKinleyville and Eureka rather than Arcata.
Coleraine’s Moon disputes this. “We’ve heard that and it’s just bogus,” he said. “The laws of supply and demand pertain to housing, just like anything else. When you restrict product, prices go up.” He insists that ACRH’s claims notwithstanding, “developers oppose us, but that’s not our focus.”
He also dismissed the study indicating adverse effects from purpose-built student housing complexes, and said that The Village would help alleviate Arcata’s housing shortage. “I suppose you could find a study that says anything you want,” he said. “They’re grasping at straws.”
Some of Bergenske’s most heated criticism has to do with the project’s name. He said the massive complex is anything but the humble “village” the name implies. He called that branding “a lie, and deceitful.”
Moon said the name is a pleasant reminder of the project’s inclusiveness. “We like the idea that ‘it takes a village’,” he said.
He cited a recent letter from the Eureka NAACP discussing housing discrimination against people of color by private landlords, and said equal access to heavily regulated The Village would be guaranteed.
“It will be inclusive,” he said. “We’re proud of our diversity.”
Former Arcata mayors Connie Stewart and Alex Stillman both spoke in favor of the Village during the final Planco meeting on the topic. Stillman stressed the importance of providing equal opportunity housing to students of color.
As The Village proceeds to the City Council on June 6, some mysteries remain unsolved.
One which cropped up last November has to do with the initial, pre-ACRH wave of anti-The Village activity in the Westwood neighborhood, adjacent to the project.
As part of a well-organized effort, a large white van transported several unidentified individuals who placed professional-looking flyers on residents’ doorsteps. Asked who they were, the flyer people became agitated and declined to identify themselves – but not before a resident took their pictures.
The flyers raise numerous questions about costs and impacts of The Village, and encourage attendance at the first Planco meeting on the subject Nov. 28.
They allude to a Facebook page, facebook.com/thevillagearcata, which has since been taken down.
Inquiries at the time as to who was behind the page went unanswered by whoever was running it.