Judith C. Williamson: The Village: ‘Density’s Child’ is a destiny of many circulatory consequences

You may be aware that a proposal for an unusually dense, multi-story, 800-bed housing compound is currently under consideration in Arcata. You might know that it is – specifically – dormitories, intended for Humboldt State students, referred to as “The Village,” and that it would displace the old Craftsmans Mall. Perhaps you’ve even heard that there is rising opposition to this particular, proposed development. But ... it really isn’t in your sky, much less your own backyard. Besides, struggling students are currently in need of affordable housing, right?

Yes indeed, many do. If only this optimistically perceived solution were actually that simple.

The “Village” would not be on the HSU campus – which is across the 101, and south of its proposed site. Is HSU attached, or even involved, in this dorm-specific development? Not directly. Would any students be required to live there? Apparently not. Would enough of them choose to live there? Unknown. And the question of whether or not struggling (much less homeless) students could even afford the Village option has not been addressed.

Currently, many students opt to rent area homes together. It’s a sensitive issue for neighborhoods where residents prefer single-family occupation. So Village proponents claim their dorms will free up home rentals – but the suggestion that more dorm availability would significantly alleviate group student rentals seems strikingly unrealistic. After all, student choice of housing is not always just about affordability. Dorms (even privately managed dorms) impose limitations and rules. Autonomy remains attractive.

City planners envision Village students walking to classes. Which means crossing Sunset Avenue and L.K. Wood Boulevard – at intersections which are already acknowledged as ill-designed, problematic and dangerous. Infrastructure improvements to these intersections would not be required prior to Village build-out, and the developer’s potentially required share of such expenses would be fractional. A pedestrian overpass? Might work. Who pays? Even one roundabout (which would not alleviate the pedestrian impact) could not happen for as much as 10 years – and would cost in excess of three million dollars. Mostly, our dollars.

Another idealistic envisioning holds that if driving becomes more difficult, people will walk/cycle/ride public transport. The presumption is that “Village” students would simply choose to forego keeping cars. In fact, less than half of them would get parking spaces on the “Village” property – but would lack of on-property parking prevent anyone (particularly students far from home) from keeping their cars off-site? After all, school is only one aspect of student life. And even if all Villagers dutifully walked to their classes, many of their cars would sit, taking up space on neighborhood streets. Already, street parking is at a premium in central Arcata neighborhoods, with residents often unable to park near their homes – even blocked from their own driveways.

Villagers who do drive (anywhere) would have only one way in and out of the compound, via St Louis Road. Regular streams of HSU-bound drivers would certainly bottleneck neighborhood intersections along north L.K. Wood, which are neither signed nor signaled for streaming traffic.

Ensnared traffic is where the rubber may meet the road for Arcatans in general – whether or not your own neighborhood is overshadowed by the encroachment of looming, four-story towers. Imagine lines of cars, backed up onto the 101, trying to emerge at the Sunset exit, awaiting the passage of hundreds of pedestrians who just got out of classes. That’s one scenario. Unlikely? You decide.

But traffic is just one issue. What about HSU enrollment? Reportedly, it is down. Significantly. Also, there is talk of the University building new dorms of their own, on campus. Which sounds perfect! Except, what then happens to the Village, after it’s built and the students don’t come? What is the repurposing potential for a huge dormitory compound?

Zoning change is another concern. The Craftsmans Mall property is zoned as light industrial, which would require rezoning to allow the Village usage. As Arcata looks toward growth, light industrial may be seen as undesirable in this (now) more central location, but that zoning status is in short supply – and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Those who deplore the currently less than lovely conditions at the Mall might pause to consider that small business entrepreneurs are significant economic drivers in our locale, who often require light industrial zoned accommodations with cheap rents. We can force such zoning out to the town’s periphery, but at what cost? Moving to newer accommodations is pricey. Many creative people will simply leave. Start-ups won’t start here. Our loss.

Well, no one is feeling sorry for the unfortunate residents in the old neighborhoods that abut the proposed Village compound. These are modest, mostly single-family neighborhoods, filled with professors and others possessing the wherewithal to invest in a small town lifestyle that is now imminently threatened. Face it, we’re told – change is upon us. Density is destiny. And destiny cannot wait for appropriate infrastructure changes, nor will it accommodate livable, diverse neighborhood planning.

Do you believe that? Do you accept it? Do you agree?

Judith chose Arcata, 21 years ago, for our diverse neighborhood character, and has recently joined Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing (ACRH).



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