Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA CITY HALL – On a 3–1 vote with Mayor Brett Watson dissenting, the City Council last week gave direction to a developer and city staff to evaluate a new version of The Village housing project, one that it could approve if properly configured.
As stipulated by the council, the new project must have a 65/35 percent mix of open rental apartments and student housing. It may house no more than 602 residents with up to 5 percent “flexibility” – essentially a cap of 632 residents. No more than half of the apartments may have one bedroom.
Developer David Moon, representing Coleraine Capital/AMCAL Equities LLC, will first have to evaluate whether his company wishes to submit a redesigned project meeting those criteria. If so, planning staff will do an in-depth analysis, including whether or not the project must go back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration there.
Watson was adamant that he couldn’t support a project with more than 602 residents. That’s the population set for the student-only version of the project that didn’t gain council approval last year. He’d also demanded mixed-use housing, a point on which Councilmembers Sofia Pereira and Paul Pitino, who preferred the student-only plan, were willing to compromise.
Humboldt State University has no involvement with the new plan.
A key variable
While critics have myriad objections, the project's population has emerged as the key variable on which approval or denial hinges, at least among the councilmembers.
During consideration of the project, Community Development Director David Loya discussed methodologies for calculating maximum residency in open market housing, the Housing and Community Development (HCD) method, the census of Area Community Survey and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
These returned varying results for the most recent proposal's mixed-unit occupancy. All estimates included a student population of 423, and raged from 456 open market resident for a total of 879 with the HCD method, 451 with the HUD method for a total of 874, and 283 with the census method for a total of 706.
"This is the range, somewhere between 700 and 880 people living there," Loya said.
The population density estimates returned by those methodologies for Village 2019 range from 64 to 80 residents per acre, compared to generally higher densities for other housing projects in the area, according to a staff report. Sunset Terrace ranged from 80 to 120 persons per acre, Heather Lane spanned 59 to 104, and Lower Twin Parks came in at 71 to 89 residents per acre.
Loya said the HCD method reflects an overcrowding condition, but the census number most accurately reflects the expected average for family housing in Arcata. He said The Village is coming in "in the middle of the medium-density range."
Moon said the student-only Village design, housing 602 residents, was just 53.75 persons per acre, while the new, mixed-use version would house 63 occupants per acre, based on total occupancy of 706.
"We think this is a reasonable number of occupants for a project of this size," Moon said. he said his partners were prepared to go forward with either of the two projects they have proposed.
The staff report said Village 2019 initially appears consistent with the project evaluated by the existing EIR, but more in-depth review will be done if the project evolves.
Councilmember Susan Ornelas spoke of a conference call she'd participated in with Moon, AMCAL CEO, plus Loya, City Manager Karen Diemer and Mayor Brett Watson. The call discussed population and design aspects of the project, including findings she'd made by modeling Village buildings with Lego blocks. A copy of the letter provided by the city doesn't include photos she'd attached of her Lego builds.
In doing so, Ornelas happened upon models that could work, with adjustments for optimal placement in terms of shading, airflow and lighting.
"I want students to have a good living experience," she said.
She also recommended creation of two-story tiny houses on the site's west side to "soften" the project. She said one of the house "compounds" should be "focused on professors and staff," including addition of an exclusive hot tub overlooking the bay, the homes designed to be “slightly more classy.”
The softening of Ornelas’s previous outright opposition opened the door to potential approval by a council majority.
A number of those who opposed last year’s project also spoke against the new version unveiled in January, citing excessive physical and population size, impacts on traffic, surrounding neighborhoods, the character of the town and a variety of other issues. The central complaint was the project's population, and uncertainties surrounding it.
Other speakers, including former Humboldt State President Rollin Richmond, advocated for approval in order to alleviate the student housing shortage.
Attorney Tim Needham, representing Strombeck Properties, said the project ought to be sent back to the Planning Commission for reconsideration since it has been repeatedly revised and is “absolutely different.” He also said the project could have parking impacts on an adjacent Strombeck housing project, the Canyon Creek apartments, which hasn't yet been approved.
Julie Vaissade-Elcock, a director for Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing, said a new EIR was clearly required for what she said was a new project. She said that "overbuilding residential units in Arcata and flooding the market will drive down rents," a strategy used elsewhere with little success, that hurts more than helps.
Owner of Arcata Property Management, Vaissade-Elcock said more residential units would exacerbate an already-high vacancy rate. She argued for creation of single-family homes with yards. "We don't need a huge, cookie-cutter apartment complex to warehouse our students," she said.
Kimberly Tayes said she supports infill, but only with a "drastically" reduced project. "It's just simply too big and too impactful," she said of the latest proposal.
Westwood Village resident Steve Martin said the project was too dense and would bring a swarm of cars, turning the intersection at L.K. Wood Boulevard and Sunset Avenue into "a nightmare" and unsafe. He said the student housing shortage, while "probably" an issue, has been exaggerated by extrapolating occasional "housing insecurity" as outright homelessness.
Jane Woodward termed the new project a "massive behemoth" that provides the wrong kind of housing, and would bring about all kinds of unintended and negative consequences.
John Bergenske, another ACRH director, advocated for an alternative, lower-density project it had commissioned, which he called the "Greenway Plan." That $3,500 design was paid for by ACRH and designed by Greenway Partners. However, no one has applied to the city to approve the alternative project or build it.
Begenske cast the alternative plan as reflecting the desires of 500 citizen-donors of ACRH. The organization's representatives have previously stated that the it has also received funding from at least one unidentified housing developer, and that it had lined up two developers to build the Greenway Project.
Despite persistent questioning, ACRH has steadfastly declined to identify the developers with whom it is coordinating, or the amount of their financial contributions. As a result, it's unclear to what extent the Greenway Project was funded by development interests using ACRH as a proxy, possibly those who its representatives have said are willing to build it.
Opponents also submitted letters detailing their objections (see below).
Pereira said the student-only project was preferable to the new, mixed-use plan, due to its lower density and single set of housing standards.
But Watson said he wasn't interested in student-only housing, and was concerned about impacts on surrounding neighborhoods. "I think we need housing for everybody," he said. He said he wanted a mixed-use plan with "an absolute max" than 602 residents, but that the size could increase after a trial period if no negative impacts on traffic and surrounding neighborhoods were created.
It was at Pereira's suggestion that the council offered specific criteria under which a housing project might gain approval by a majority of councilmembers. "I want to make sure we're really being clear about the big picture and what we actually want to move forward on," she said.
Moon agreed that "clear criteria" about what the council could approve would be helpful in ascertaining whether it would pencil out. "We can do the math," he said. "Maybe we can do some redesign that would help us make it work."
The council's deliberations became slightly tense at one point when Councilmember Pereira scolded Mayor Watson over the conference call he had participated in with Moon and others the previous Monday.
Watson had alluded to the conference call with Moon et al, at which point City Attorney Nancy Diamond asked that the call be "brought into the record." He said he thought it had been.
After more discussion about specifics, Watson told Loya that "you guys are having a conversation I've already had" with regard to the difficulties of creating a viable mixed-use project with a 602-bed limit.
Directing her comments to Watson and referring to the phone call, Periera said, "In the future, if we can just make sure that stuff's maybe more outlined up front for the ex parte communication, because that's part of why we disclose the ex parte communication so all of that is clearly in the record," she said. "I wasn't a part of that meeting."
Watson said he had been advised that there was no project before the council, hence the call was permissible, and that Ornelas had disclosed the phone call earlier.
"You were able to be in a meeting that some of us weren't privy to, and so I understand that means we're working with different information as we're having this public conversation," Pereira said.
"The Brown Act precludes us for having that kind of meeting," Pitino said. Otherwise we'd be having a council meeting outside of the Council Chambers."
City Attorney Nancy Diamond said Strombeck/Needham’s objections were “speculative,” and couldn’t be properly evaluated until the new project is defined.
Councilmembers Paul Pitino and Sofia Pereira restated their preference for the 2018, 602-resident, student-only version of the project.
Asked for a statement, Erik Jules, ACRH president said, "We were disappointed that last night the City Council gave AMCAL the green-light to proceed with a development with an occupancy of ~632 people – far larger than what most neighbors were comfortable with. By saying the council is open to a 5 percent increase over the council's desired 602 occupancy level simply means AMCAL will take that 5 percent increase. Mayor Watson was the only one to hold them line at 602, and he is only one of four votes. ACRH is disappointed and would prefer the council hold the applicant to a firm and smaller limit."
"The ACRH remains concerned that the impacts of a project in the 600-650 range brings with it unmitigated impacts to the community that result in significant consequences to infrastructure and transportation-related elements of which there are many. This is the fundamental reason why the planning commission forwarded the project to Council with a recommendation to disapprove it.
"ACRH citizens invested a lot of their energy to create the Greenway Plan, a mixed-housing plan that includes 8 single story residential homes; 2 single story duplexes; 4 2-story 4-plex buildings; 5 2-story 8-plex buildings; and 2 3-story 12-plex buildings. Using 1.67 occupants/bedroom the total site occupancy would be 461 people. We wish the council had advocated for this plan that the community had supported, and that serves all of the community."
Documents submitted to (and from) the council regarding the latest version of The Village: