There’s strong support in McKinleyville for the creation of a pedestrian-friendly town center, but it is unknown whether the vision for the heart of the community is economically viable.

The McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee took up the issue at its meeting May 31, hearing from supporters of the town center proposal and receiving a reality check from county planning staff.

The vision

The darkened area shows the McKinleyville Town Center zone. From McKinleyville Community Plan

The McKinleyville Community Plan, the town’s growth blue print approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2002, calls for the creation of a town center. The zone extends from Pierson Park to McKinleyville Avenue, and from Railroad Drive to an area just south of Hiller Road. It also includes the commercial area north of Heartwood Drive where the Burger King and other businesses are located.

The largest undeveloped area is located behind the McKinleyville Shopping Center. There are also some undeveloped parcels along the south side of Hiller Road. Most of this land is owned by Anne Pierson, which means the future of most of the town center is in the hands of a single person.

Pierson has voiced support for the town center concept, but has said she’s not in a financial position to develop the property.

The community plan calls for the town center to include housing, shops, work places, parks and other civic facilities connected by pathways, with areas for social gatherings. The idea is to give McKinleyville a focal point and create a village-like atmosphere. 
Although the plan spells out a vision for the town center, it does not include specific building requirements. These regulations would be included in a town center ordinance, which was never created even though the town plan was approved 15 years ago.

The ordinance

At the May 31 committee meeting, a group called the McKinleyville Organizing Coalition (previously called the McKinleyville Organizing Committee) presented a letter asking that the advisory committee urge the Board of Supervisors to begin drafting a town center ordinance, hold public meetings and place a moratorium on new development in the zone until the ordinance is adopted.

Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford, who gave a presentation on the town center process at the meeting, said that the process of creating the ordinance would be take time, and that a moratorium would be legally questionable.

The law, Ford said, generally allows property owners to use their properties based upon the zoning. “To cut them off for any length of time is typically frowned upon by the legal system,” Ford said, noting that moratoriums are usually reserved for cases in which there’s a threat to public safety.

As for the timing of creating an ordinance, Ford said planning staff is consumed with other projects right now, including the county general plan update, which may be wrapped up in October or November, and an update of the cannabis growing ordinance.

Creating a town center ordinance would not be a simple or fast process. It “is not just a matter of scratching something on a piece of paper and shoving it in front of the Board of Supervisors and saying ‘Here, please approve this,” Ford told the committee.

There would be a thorough public process and numerous studies looking at traffic, utilities and all the other infrastructure required for a town center. An environmental study would need to be conducted.

Perhaps most importantly, the county would need to conduct a market analysis to determine what is economically feasible.

“A lot of times… there are really good ideas that people come up with, but if there’s not a market for that, then it’s a really good idea that will never happen,” Ford said.

Big ideas

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting shared ideas for the town center, including having a museum, a dance hall, outdoor concert area, stores catering to young people, trails with benches, buildings with balconies, affordable housing above storefronts and a public square.

Bonnie MacGregor told the committee that the public has wanted a town center for decades. Explaining the public vision for the center, MacGregor said “There is a sense of cohesion and a kind of quality of appearance.”

“It’s walkable and it’s enjoyable to walk around and there are gathering places,” MacGregor said.

Several people mentioned the Plaza Point building as an example of what they would like to see in McKinleyville. Plaza Point, located at Eighth and I streets next to the Arcata Co-op in downtown Arcata, is a three-story building developed by Danco. 

The top two levels contain 29 units of affordable housing for seniors and the disabled. The ground-level includes stores and other commercial enterprises.

Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg told the committee that he had spoken to a Danco representative about how to get such projects built in McKinleyville. The answer is that the developer needs to be able to get grant funding to make such projects possible.

Committee members were unanimous in their support of the town center concept. However, they warned that the viability of building the town center as people envision it would be based on economics.

“One of the things to keep in mind is that it’s going to take a highly motivated property owner that has the wherewithal, or has experience going after and finding grant funds,” said committee member Greg Orsini.

Sending a letter

At the suggestion of committee member Craig Tucker, the committee voted unanimously to draft a letter to the Board of Supervisors in support of the town center concept. 

The letter includes two paragraphs taken from the letter submitted by the McKinleyville Organizing Coalition:

1. Urge the Board of Supervisors, on our behalf, to instruct the Humboldt County Planning Department to begin drafting a McKinleyville Town Center Ordinance by fall 2017. (Humboldt County General Plan, vol. II, McKinleyville Community Plan, 2002; Section 2352, pg. 11).

2. Commit the McMAC [McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee] to initiate a broadly inclusive public process, ensuring community participation in decision about the structure and design of the Town Center, and the elements of the Town Center Ordinance, commencing immediately. (Humboldt County General Plan, vol. II, McKinleyville Community Plan, 2002; Section 1601, pg. 3). 

The committee left out a portion of the coalition’s letter calling for a moratorium. 

The committee will review the draft letter and may vote to send it to the Board of Supervisors at its meeting on Wednesday, June 28, beginning at 6 p.m. at the Middle School Conference Room, located in the rear of McKinleyville Middle School.


Jack Durham is editor of the Mad River UnionSubscribe here.