Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The first two of at least three Planning Commission meetings on the proposed “The Village” student housing project were held last week at City Hall. A third was scheduled for Tuesday night of this week.
Proposed by Agoura Hills-based AMCAL Equities LLC, and its development partner, Coleraine Capital Group, The Village includes four 4-story “towers” 50 feet in height. Inside are 240 student apartments containing 800 beds. The project would be sited at the present location of Arcata’s Craftsman’s Mall on St. Louis Road. The mall and its many motley buildings, owned by Nancy Yagi-Kirkpatrick, would be torn down to make room for the project. Seven parcels will be merged to create The Village’s 11-acre footprint.
The project faces U.S. Highway 101 to the east, and residential Maple Lane to the west. Eye Street to the south would serve as a gated emergency access route.
The Planco is considering the project’s landscaping and parking, plus amendments to the General Plan and zoning maps.
Zoning will have to be changed from Industrial Limited to Residential High-Density, with the addition of a Planned Development overlay to accommodate the 50-foot buildings’ towering beyond the nominal 35-foot height. That will be a decision of the City Council.
Chair Robert Flint recused himself over a conflict of interest –he's employed by Danco Group, which could be a contractor on the project – so last week’s meetings were led by Vice Chair Judith Mayer.
Flint’s absence left an even-numbered Planco vulnerable to tied vote on the project. The same potential for a deadlocked vote may occur when the project goes to the City Council. On Nov. 4, 2015, when the project was introduced in conceptual form, Councilmember Michael Winkler recused himself, stating that he may be doing energy consulting work for the developer. That leaves a diminished, four-person council to give a final decision.
Winkler confirmed Monday that he won't be voting on the project. "My company, in the past, has done energy modeling for large, multi-family housing projects by Amcal," Winkler said. "There's a possibility that if this project is approved, my company and I would be doing energy analysis and field testing on this building." The consulting would create a disqualifying conflict of interest.
He said he doesn't need the money from the job, but that his talents were best used ensuring that the project is energy efficient rather than considering the project as a public official. "I want it to be the best that it can be as far as energy," Winkler said. "I want it to be no fossil fuels, and all solar."
Asked whether he might forego the paid consulting job for Amcal and instead fulfill his duties as an elected public servant, Winkler said. "I could do that." But would he? "No," he said flatly.
If either even-numbered body – the Planco or City Council – becomes deadlocked, it won’t be able to make a decision, effectively halting the project.
Tuesday’s meeting took place before a densely packed Council Chamber, with the overwhelming majority of attendees opposed to the project. The sheer number of speakers required the Planco to have speakers sign up to speak for three minutes, with priority for those who couldn’t return for the second meeting.
Community Development Director David Loya acknowledged the personal impacts the project would have on residents, as detailed extensively in various online fora. He cautioned attendees that the Planco will have to make findings based on conditions of approval, environmental impacts and permit requirements. He urged speakers to dwell on community-wide and environmental impacts more than personal feelings, which the commission can’t consider, and also noted that written comments – which may be submitted through Dec. 15 – will be added to the EIR.
Loya offered an overview of Arcata’s housing needs, and the impacts of student rentals have on the city’s housing stock. Student rentals have heavily consumed single-family dwellings, driving down owner occupancy rates. A large student housing project could draw students out of rentals and make more housing available for family occupancy.
Infill – repurposing already developed parcels rather than expanding out into farmland –is the most responsible and sustainable option, though one that requires creative management of impacts.
Planner Alyson Hunter ran through the numerous permits and findings The Village will require. These include General Plan and Zoning Map amendments with creation of a Planned Development Combining Zone, a Design Review permit (including neighborhood compatibility), a parcel merger to combine the seven properties, conformance with the General Plan, a development agreement with conditions of approval, environmental review and CEQA conformance.
The draft development agreement would be finalized in later negotiations, but initially includes creation of about 800 feet of the Rail with Trail, a new bike/pedestrian path to the west offering connectivity to Maple Lane and Janes Creek Meadows via the Janes Creek Bridge, a cash contribution for upgrades to the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, and assurances that The Village will remain a dedicated student housing facility for at least 20 years.
Biological impacts have been found to be minimal,Hunter said. A bigger issue is traffic impacts. The developer would be required to pay for present and future impacts detailed in a traffic study. The study identified 12 intersections that will be impacted by the multiple new housing developments in progress, the biggest being the maxed-out and much-disliked intersection of L.K. Wood Boulevard/Sunset Avenue/G and H streets/U.S. Highway 101.
But along with traffic, the main issues raised by the community – as the Planco was soon to hear – are the aesthetic and viewshed impacts on Westwood Village. The present 35-foot buildings, located 100 feet from the property line, will be replaced by 50-foot buildings 240 feet back from the property line.
Hunter said Arcata Police have concluded that student behavior would be more easily managed with the students consolidated in a managed facility rather than scattered about town in rentals, and would create no undue burden on the department.
David Moon, principal of Coleraine Capital Group stepped up to offer what he said would be a 15-minute presentation (but was to go on much longer). This provoked the first blurt from the audience, one suggesting that he be limited to two minutes. “I’d also appreciate if our public would provide respect to all commenters and allow them to have their say,” Mayer said.
Moon described the project as providing excellent housing for students, with a full range of amenities from study halls to fitness and entertainment facilities. As with the several other similar housing complexes his company has created, Moon said The secure, supervised Village improves student safety and benefits both the community and university. It also fulfills many goals for housing improvements listed in Humboldt State’s Master Plan. Rooms would be leased to upperclassmen with strict conditions on behavior.
He said the new project would relieve numerous unsafe and out-of-code situations at the present Craftsman’s Mall.
“We’re very excited about what we’re doing,” Moon said.
Part of Moon’s presentation included a revised photo simulation of the view east from Maple Lane. The version included in the EIR had been heavily questioned as making The Village’s buildings look lower than they would really be, because story poles installed on the site which indicate the buildings’ edges seemed to indicate much higher structures as viewed from Maple Lane. The new photo confirmed that the original photo simulation was misleading.
“We did an original one before we did the story poles, and then we revised it after we put the story poles up,” Moon said. Still, he said the buildings would cast no shadows on existing homes.
As his presentation reached the half-hour mark, a man in the audience began clapping his hands, effectively halting the meeting. He persisted for a full minute, over Mayer’s objections. “I’d like to ask you to please stop clapping so that we can hear this presentation,” she said.
When the man, later identified as Breigdon Besh, finally stopped clapping, Moon concluded his talk. Mayer asked whether anyone representing Humboldt State was present and wished to talk, but no one stepped forward. The university has taken a hands-off approach to The Village, offering neither public support for or opposition to the project. Its sole comment on the matter is a three-paragraph letter submitted by HSU Vice President Joyce Lopes in November, 2015 which states that “we generally favor efforts to provide additional options for quality housing for our students.”
What followed was a pageant of protest, with most speakers condemning the project and citing numerous flaws. Many acknowledged the need for student housing, but said The Village is inappropriate, inadequate and destructive as presently designed.
Among the alleged shortcomings cited by critics were the project’s massive scale; its impacts on the privacy, safety and quiet of Maple Lane and Westwood Village; the cookie-cutter nature of its design, including the use of faux brick; the displacement of artisans and craftspeople at the Craftsman’s Mall; the outside corporate developers proposing the project; the increase in vehicular traffic; the inadequate vehicular access; inadequate parking; the lack of photovoltaic installations; the LEEDS Silver designation, considered inadequate; its impacts on local senior citizens; and several other related objections. Most of the objections were met by thunderous applause.
A few speakers said the project would in fact, offer local employment, be aesthetically pleasing and aid in student retention at Humboldt State.
Thursday’s continuation of Tuesday’s meeting lacked the developers’ presence, and consisted of spillover testimony by citizens. Objections lodged at the second meeting included the buildings’ “mausoleum-like” design; the inappropriate scale for a small town; cumulative impacts of the many housing projects planned; the potential for gridlock; lack of neighborhood compatibility; viewshed impacts; noise impacts; the lack of guarantees on affordable pricing; the precedents being set for massive developments; loss of privacy; and the lack of opportunities to comment.
Breigdon Besh took the podium, saying student homelessness is being ignored, and said The Village is a "luxury apartment complex." he refused to stop speaking after three minutes, defying Mayer’s admonitions and despite objections by fellow opponents in the audience. He stood his ground at the podium until citizen Jane Woodward confronted him there, and after repeated pleas, he eventually stood down.
Eureka attorney Tim Needham, representing developer Steve Strombeck, said his client is willing to put a hold on his nearby Canyon Creek project. The 89-unit residential development north of Larson Park is the closest of several new housing developments coming to fruition in the area. Needham said later that The Village and the other projects ought not be considered individually, but collectively as part of a "Special Plan."
"They're planning by piecemeal," he said. "That's the worst kind of planning."
The hearings were to continue Tuesday night.