When a massive student housing project goes back before the Arcata Planning Commission on March 27, a recently formed community group will be presenting more than a show of opposition to the proposal — they have an alternative plan.
"We believe there's a better way than The Village project," says John Bergenske, one of Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing's (ACRH) three directors.
With a bit more than 150 members, the group has coalesced over concerns about a real estate development company's bid to build a three- and four-story complex to house 700 students on the Craftsman's Mall site, which sits across U.S. Highway 101 from LK Wood Boulevard north of campus and currently consists of a rambling collection of old warehouses and assorted buildings broken up by an occasional trailer and a few small homes.
With a website and nonprofit status, ACRH is readying to offer a different vision for the 10-acre parcel, one with a focus on what Bergenske describes as "blended density" that is integrated with the community rather than the exclusive domain of students.
Instead of a lone outpost of private dorms with 200 units towering over the Westwood neighborhood, ACRH proposes a housing mix, ranging from 640- to 1,200-square-foot single family homes closest to the subdivision with various sized apartment buildings — including student and senior housing — back toward U.S. Highway 101, more like the Tea Garden Apartments to the south.
That alternative vision was honed at a charrette the group organized with Greenway Partners — which is creating a conceptual plan — earlier this month. The emphasis was on having the nearly 50 people who showed up talk about what they'd like to see rather than trepidations about what is being proposed.
(While there is no membership fee, ACRH does ask for donations of $50 to help cover the design plans and other costs.)
Other ideas brought forward included a section for tiny houses, a community garden and affordable housing options.
Bergenske says the general consensus is that "this piece of land is a wonderful opportunity for Arcata and developing it is a good thing. ... But, developing it in a way The Village would develop it is not a good thing."
The concept, he says, is to "change the course of the current project" by presenting a united front to the Arcata Planning Commission, which could include the group's plan as an alternative option in The Village's draft environmental impact report that — if certified — will be forwarded to the city council for a final decision.
Taking a break from manning the sign-in table at the charrette, Erik Jules, ACRH's president and neighborhood advisor, emphasizes that the group isn't opposed to student housing. In fact, he says, the opposite is true, but not disconnected from the rest of the city like The Village project would be.
"I like having students in my neighborhood," says Jules, a Humboldt State University professor who lives with his family in the Westwood subdivision. "I want them to be part of the community, but what community are they going to be a part of?"
The Village is being proposed by AMCAL — a real estate development company that has built similar projects in other college towns, including one in Monterey that was later purchased by Cal State Monterey Bay.
While Humboldt State University is not involved in The Village's development, President Lisa Rossbacher voiced support for the project in a December letter to the Arcata City Council, noting the lack of available housing on and off campus has made it difficult to recruit and retain students.
"Because of this need, HSU supports the concept of The Village project and other projects that will increase access to appropriate housing for our students — housing that is affordable, accessible and safe," she wrote. "As the details of this project emerge, the city of Arcata will make its own assessment of whether The Village project is the right fit for our community."
Meanwhile, ACRH is focusing on the March 27 planning commission meeting — one of several held over the last few months to take public comment on The Village project, which has undergone several modifications, including a height reduction on two of its four buildings — when the draft EIR is up for certification.
David Loya, the city's community development director, says the project will require a general plan and zoning amendment, which "is not a small decision."
He says he has worked to make the process as transparent as possible, extending time limits for public comment and structuring meetings to promote participation, noting anytime the city is looking at a major project, there are always concerns and opposition.
While it's not uncommon for residents to suggest changes to a project, going the extra step of having an alternative conceptional design is "a much more robust participation than we would see typically," Loya says, adding the city will be taking ACRH's upcoming proposal "very seriously."
Bergenske emphasizes that the planning commission is just one stop in the project's review process and the real action takes place on the city council level.
"That's is where the decisions are made," he says, adding that's when public turnout will count the most to move the project in a different direction, but if that doesn't work, the group would look at putting the matter to a public vote.
But, Bergenske says, the hope is ACRH will be able to convince the city council "that we have an alternative here and we have 1,000 signatures saying this is what we want ... this is what the community wants."
Kimberly Wear is the Journal's assistant editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.