The Red Roof Inn and Days Inn in Valley West | Photos: Jacquelyn Opalach

A project that will convert two Valley West hotels – the Red Roof Inn and Days Inn & Suites – into permanent housing for homeless individuals in our community is one step closer to reality, after the Arcata City Council voted on Wednesday night to make the necessary zoning changes and approve the grant and loan applications for funding the projects.

The zoning change expands the City’s Homeless Housing Combining District – adopted by the City in 2009 to allow for creation of emergency shelters and homeless housing –  to include the hotel properties. It also adds language establishing standards for Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) developments, a type of housing that is meant to serve as a permanent residence for homeless individuals.

The project is a partnership between the City, local nonprofit Arcata House Partnership (AHP) and development company Danco, and will be funded by grant money from the Homekey Program – a statewide effort to rapidly expand housing for the homeless population. AHP will purchase the Days Inn and convert it into 60 apartments for chronically homeless people and Danco will purchase and convert the Red Roof Inn into 78 units for the homeless population. With the council’s approval, the City also agreed to provide both organizations with a loan, which will be paid back by the grant money (with three percent interest).

Many community members spoke during Wednesday’s virtual Zoom meeting. Some were in support of the project because of the homeless community’s dire need for housing opportunities, but many voiced opposition, citing concerns over safety, crime and the potential depreciation of nearby property values.

“This will segregate one of the lowest income groups to a one block radius of Valley West,” commenter Carol Graham said during the meeting. Graham added that she received no notification about the proposed projects, despite living within a block of the hotels.

The project planners held two public outreach meetings on Dec 1. – one over Zoom and one in Valley West. One community member, Melissa Lazon, said that she had attended the in-person meeting and was “touched” by the comments from the homeless population in attendance, saying that they want to be a more active part of their community and help improve the Valley West neighborhood with things like a public garden and holding community workshops.

“The homeless population, by the way, are already in our backyard,” Lazon said. “They are already a part of our community. Let’s give them the dignity they deserve and the services they need to help rebuild their lives. All of Arcata needs affordable housing and this is the start.”

Chris Dart, president of Danco, and Darleen Spoor, executive director of AHP, both spoke during the meeting and attempted to address some of the community’s concerns. Dart and Spoor mentioned that both properties would have 24-hour management and would each have fencing around the perimeter for security and safety purposes. Spoor said that the facility would not look like a prison, but more like a “gated community.” 

Spoor added that the Days Inn pool room would be converted into a community center that could eventually hold events and support group meetings, and also that tenants would have access to drug counseling programs and other support services, with one case manager provided for every 10 tenants. She also emphasized that the residents of this housing would be paying 30 percent of their income toward rent (if they have no income, then they would pay nothing) and that these would be people’s homes, not a temporary shelter.

“The homeless population is substantial,” Spoor said during the meeting. “We need to act – and fast – before more people die on the street, before more people become homeless, before more people suffer needlessly.”

Feeling a little concerned over the Planning Commission’s recommendation to not approve the project, Councilmember Brett Watson moved that the council continue the conversation at a later meeting, to give the commission a chance to review. But Watson’s motion died for lack of a second. Vice-Mayor Emily Goldstein then moved that the council go forward with the zoning change, and her motion was passed unanimously. The decision to approve the two grant applications were also passed unanimously, and with little discussion.

The ordinance changing the city’s zoning code to allow for the project development will return to the council for adoption on Jan. 5

The Arcata City Council | Screenshot from online meeting video

Gateway Area Plan Update

In other housing-related business, the council received an update on the City’s Gateway Area Plan – a proposal to facilitate the development of high-density housing in the area of town including and surrounding the Creamery District, roughly between K and Q Streets and 17th Street and Samoa Boulevard.

After holding many outreach meetings and walking tours over the last year or so, the City released the draft plan earlier this month and has been encouraging the public to review the plan and submit questions and comments to the City. David Loya, Arcata community development director, began by outlining some of frequently asked questions to the Council.

Questions from the public have included concerns about if the project is in the tsunami zone (it is not), if it will be impacted by sea level rise (it should not be), and whether business and residences will be forced to vacate (they will not).

Although no one will be forced to vacate, Loya said, the City does plan to incentivize some businesses to relocate, so that their property could be converted to housing, particularly businesses that take up a lot of space, but do not employ many people. One example of this type of business is storage facilities – like Bud’s Mini-Storage on Fifth and K Streets, which occupies an entire city block. 

Bud’s mini-storage on Fifth and K Streets, Arcata | Screenshot from Googlemaps

Another big concern surrounding this plan is parking, Loya said, referring to the issue as one “you cannot win, no matter what you do.” Loya candidly explained that this particular plan does not emphasize parking, because the City is trying to discourage people from driving.

“This plan does have an ambitious goal of moving toward a car-free lifestyle,” Loya said. “Move toward a car-free neighborhood – a place where you can walk and work and live all in the same place. This plan is designed to de-emphasize parking and encourage other forms of transportation.”

Of course, parking was mentioned by many members of the community during the public comment period – during which more than two dozen people spoke –  as were potential building heights. Though no height restrictions have yet been established, the City has mentioned allowing up to eight stories, something that several community members said they do not support.

Many community members also voiced support for the project, emphasizing the need for housing in Arcata and mentioning that infill will be the best approach to creating the amount of housing we need.

Rob Holmlund – former community development director for the City of Eureka and principal planner for Planwest Partners Inc., which prepared the Gateway Plan – gave a presentation after Loya. He outlined some of the key components of the plan and why this area of Arcata is so desirable for housing, including its walking distance to downtown and proximity to many prominent businesses. Echoing Loya, Holmlund pointed out that the neighborhood has many potentially underutilized business properties, such as storage facilities and large warehouses owned by businesses like Wing Inflatables. Some of these businesses could be asked to relocate, or could consolidate their operations to use fewer buildings or parts of their property.

Holmlund also mentioned at the beginning of his presentation that he feels people’s attitudes and expectations around housing may need to shift. He said that many people say they are in support of more housing, but then add that they don’t want the developments to be too dense, don’t want it to be more than four stories, do want ample parking and don’t want it to impact the community.

“What I’ve come to hear when I hear that is ‘I want magic housing that has no impacts, that no one can see and that doesn’t change anything about my community,’” Holmlund said jocularly. “And what people are really asking for is a magic, flying rainbow unicorn. It is a really great dream, but you can’t have both the housing that you want and no impacts of any kind at all.”

If you have concerns about the Gateway Area Plan, there is still lots of time to submit your comments and there will be many other opportunities to learn more. You can review the draft plan here and email your comments or questions

Images from Holmlund’s presentation, “equal sign” added by Stephanie McGeary