Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The Planning Commission held another marathon hearing on The Village student housing project last week, pondering the project’s Environmental Impact Report, permits and terms of a Development Agreement. The Village is a proposed 240-unit, 800-bed new student housing development in the Sunset Neighborhood on St. Louis Road
Community Development Director David Loya displayed a number of images reflecting visual impacts on surrounding neighborhoods, including a new version – the third one so far – of the simulated view from Maple Lane, located west and down a slope from the project. He said the aesthetic impacts have been determined by case law to be the responsibility of the local design review process.
Westwood residents first expressed concern about viewshed impacts last April, when the project was unveiled. At the time, Coleraine Capital President David Moon offered assurances that photo simulations would be provided.
The project’s EIR identifies key aesthetic impacts as less than significant. These include adverse effects on a scenic vista, damage to scenic resources, degrading the visual character of the site and surroundings, and creation of a new source of light and glare.
“There’s a fairly limited scope that a fairly limited sensitive viewshed is impacted, and therefore it’s not a significant environmental impact,” Loya said, referring to the “scenic resources” of the site.
One impact, he said, is certainly positive – the visual improvement at the site itself, which would be transformed from a ramshackle collection of deteriorating Craftsman’s Mall buildings into a modern housing complex.
Still, he allowed, “It is a huge change; we recognize that, and sometimes those huge changes are made with intention.”
Westwood Village residents pushed back on the suggestion of minimal impacts. Bonnie MacRaith said that loss of sunlight would reduce her property’s value. “That a large corporation should be able to make huge amounts of money all the while trampling on a homeowner’s hard-won progress is totally unfair,” she said. She said planning commissioners should do a site visit before making any decisions.
Resident Erik Jules said the computer viewshed simulations aren’t accurate, and that he could see the project’s story poles from multiple points on his property. He wanted the west side of the project limited to two stories. Jules also pleaded with the commission to engage with Humboldt State officials, involve the university in the project and have its role in the project’s planning and management clarified.
Resident Milt Boyd said he was disturbed by what he said was city staff’s advocacy for the project.
Resident John Bergenske agreed, and said computer simulations are often inaccurate. He wanted The Village considered as part of an overall plan for the area, one which considers all of the developments pending in the area. That would allow safety and other impacts to be more realistically considered.
An overall area development plan has been advocated by representatives of developer Steve Strombeck, who is proposing the nearby Canyon Creek Apartments, an 89-unit multi-family complex on Todd Court, adjacent to Larson Park
Attorney Howard “Chip” Wilkins, representing a group called Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing, said the Planco needed to address outstanding questions posed by citizens, and that any decisions made before responses were logged in the project’s EIR would be premature. Loya later noted that no approval would be granted until all public comments in the EIR were addressed.
Garry Rees, a consultant for the project, said the findings of less than significant impacts were supportable, and that the project represents an improvement over present conditions in the area.
Loya agreed with a citizen who said that The Village project sets a precedent, but a necessary and inevitable one. “Whatever the outcome of this process, you’re setting a precedent,” he said. “This is a large infill development. It’s really different from many of the kinds of development that we’ve seen before. If we’re going to accommodate future economic and housing development in our community, we’re going to see more of this, not less of it.”
Loya added that, “We’re grappling with the leading edge of these questions.”
The commission deliberated at length about the impacts of the project, from lighting spillover to consistency with area architecture.
After considerable discussion, a poll of commissioners indicated that aesthetic impacts were mostly less than significant. Some commissioners still found impacts potentially significant, but Loya pointed out that there is no “minority report,” and that the majority opinion would prevail.
Loya clarified that per the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), EIR certification and project approval are two separate but linked processes. No discretionary approvals can be made before the EIR is certified with findings of less than significant environmental impact, or a statement of overriding consideration.
Commissioners also found that The Village would have less-than-significant growth-inducing impact.
More discussion went into the building’s four-story height. That could be a significant impact and conflict with the General Plan, in which zoning for the site would be modified.
Developers have reluctantly signaled that they could downsize the project to some extent if its mass and height are considered excessive.
The Planning Commission will again consider The Village project at its Feb. 13 meeting. A large amount of information on The Village and other pending development projects is available at cityofarcata.org.