Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Arcata’s Planning Commission last week took up the proposed Isackson’s Housing Project, a block-long, four-story apartment building sited on Seventh Street between I and J streets downtown.
The project includes 43 one-, two- and three-bedroom rent-restricted apartments plus a manager’s unit totaling over 36,000 square feet plus a community center and a public plaza and shops on the ground floor. Additional features include community gardens, a skate park and tot lot for residents. New utilities, sidewalks, driveway access, landscaping, playground, parking, and private and public open space areas will be developed on site.
Proposed by Danco Group and located in the Coastal Zone, the project is classified as a Minor Subdivision and will require a CEQA exemption, Coastal Development Permit and Design Review Permit.
A handful of non-historic buildings on the lot’s north side will be demolished, while the former Isackson’s car dealership buildings presently housing two cannabis shops and a car repair business on the south side will remain.
A solar installation will fully power the all-electric, no-natural gas project, with utilities provided to residents.
A shading simulation showed that buildings on the north side of Seventh Street will be in shadow at some times of the day during wintertime, including the McBain Associates Building, which was designed with passive solar features. Its photovoltaic panels won’t be affected.
Loya said that moving the building south to lessen shading impacts would directly contradict city design guidelines, but that could be worked through.
The project is only about half the density which is allowed in the commercial district. Per the requirement for a mixed-use development, it provides 15 parking spaces to serve about one-third of the occupants, which concerns nearby downtown residents.
But Community Development Director David Loya acknowledged that many tenants will have cars, but said that city policy is to push for alternative transportation by making parking inconvenient. In addition, the California Environmental Quality Act states that as of July 1, 2020, driver delay “shall not” be considered during project review. That accounts for the project’s multiple alternative transportation amenities.
More parking would be considered “excessive” and require the Planning Commission to make special findings to allow it. However, off-site parking could be added on other Danco-owned parcels in the area.
According to a staff report, the infill development project will add bike and pedestrian improvements including sidewalk repair and replacement, bike lane gap infill, bike/pedestrian infill, pedestrian-activated lighted signals at Samoa Boulevard, and high-visibility crossings, plus other improvements.
Pending approval of an Affordable Housing Sustainable Communities (AHSC) grant which has an application deadline of July 1, the project will include funding for purchase of an electric bus, city and county bus passes for each of the residences, a car share station available to residents and public near the project, and bus stop improvements. The city is trying to increase the low ridership on the Arcata & Mad River Transit System, and the project’s configuration provides a pilot effort in that regard.
The project, Loya said, “has more alternative transportation measures than any project has individually installed and probably ever will install in the history of the city.” Those measures, however, are entirely dependent on approval of the grant funding.
Other funding is provided by $1.5 million in city HOME funds, plus another $300,000 in city funds, the applicant’s funding and tax breaks. All of the funding sources are required for the project to proceed.
Danco Communities President Chris Dart said the project is intended to bring affordable housing downtown and represents a balance of multiple design and funding requirements. “Most of these is driven not by us as a developer,” he said. “They’re driven by the codes and the legislation and the grant funding and the city ordinances.”
Dart said he was confident that $4.4 million in AHSC grant funding would be approved. Rents, he estimated, would be as low as $336 for a one-bedroom apartment, $403 for two bedrooms and $460 for three.
Nearby resident Joe James said the building was too big for the site and would cause crushing parking and other impacts. “I just feel that it’s really too big,” he said.
Scott McBain asked that the Planco deny the project, which he called “a punch in the gut.” He said that it will have significant impacts to his business’s building and its employees. He said it would ruin the elaborate measures incorporated into it to accommodate Jolly Giant Creek, which runs through his property.
McBain said he hadn’t been given adequate notice to prepare responses to the project, and that the city had been unresponsive to his concerns.
Aldaron Laird, a former planning commissioner whose office is located in the McBain building, called the Isackson’s project a “monstrosity” that’s incompatible with the neighborhood which would cause shading and other impacts and should be downsized. He urged disapproval.
Becky McBain said the project’s solar panels would add another 10 feet to the building, worsening shading impacts on her building and negating its passive and active solar features. “We’re going to be in a canyon,” she said.
Other neighbors registered similar concerns about shading and parking from what was called a “skyscraper,” as well as release of toxic material during demolition of the existing buildings.
Loya said the shading impacts were relatively limited, and took place mostly during the winter.
Keenan Hilton of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities acknowledged the impacts, but called the project “a great opportunity for the City of Arcata” to reduce vehicle-intensive housing and combat climate change. He said the project’s future tenants, and those who will benefit from the alternative transportation improvements weren’t being heard from. “These design choices will have long-term effects,” he said.
Dart said downsizing would eliminate grant funding, and that shading issues based on the darkest day of the year, Dec. 21, were being exaggerated.
After more discussion, the Planco continued the project its next future meeting. Dart was advised to give more study to the shading and parking issues and examine possible mitigations – mainly, moving the building south on its lot to reduce shading on buildings north of it.