Humboldt is growing. How it grows is our choice. Arcata’s Gateway Area Plan will help to meet our area’s future housing needs while protecting the open space and agricultural lands that make Humboldt special. Unfortunately, opponents of the project have seized on specious environmental arguments to confuse the matter. To set the record straight, we — executive directors of local environmental organizations — want to be clear: infill development projects, like the Gateway Project, are good for Humboldt County and good for the environment.
Whether it is climate refugees unwilling to spend another summer scorching in Sacramento or displaced by fire, Bay Area residents freed to move by telework, or students and professors ready to make Humboldt State Polytechnic their new home, new folks have already started moving to Humboldt. And if housing prices are any indication of demand, lots of people already want to live here. Humboldt’s housing market is “white hot,” among the hottest in the country. The cost of this hot market is already felt by folks who have seen their rent increase or their dreams of a starter house vanish.
More urban housing won’t jeopardize Humboldt’s rural charm but opposing infill development will. Here’s how: Absent infill development, housing demand will be met either by pricing people out of the area — displacing community members who have long called Humboldt home or furthering our homelessness crisis — or by building new housing in previously undeveloped areas.
Our urban areas are largely built out, with areas like the Gateway a seeming exception. If housing pressure is not released in our urban core, it will be released through creeping development — further into Dow’s Prairie, in the woods by Kneeland, or on the bluffs of Loleta, where the county’s weak regulations will allow for environmentally harmful development for those who can afford it. What’s special about Humboldt is that our towns have borders and are surrounded by green space and not just more asphalt. Fighting infill development is an invitation for sprawl that will bulldoze the agriculture and forest lands that make Humboldt special. Opposing housing in our cities will push it into the unincorporated areas of the County, where auto-dependent sprawl is encouraged by lax regulations.
The Gateway Area Plan is a long-term planning document to reexamine the kind of development the city wants to encourage in a 138-acre area in the western side of the city that once primarily housed industrial uses. The Gateway Area Plan is just that — a plan — and cannot, by itself, develop or force landowners to build housing. Rather, it would allow private mixed-use development, including apartments, condos, or townhouses, by removing barriers to development through rezoning to allow new uses. All told, the Plan allows, but does not guarantee, up to 3,500 new homes, constructed over 20 years or longer.
There are many attributes to this area that make it ideal for redevelopment. Because this area was already largely developed for industrial uses, we don’t need to convert farms, fields or forests to build more housing — we can encourage landowners to redevelop blighted properties instead. The plan would also offer protections for wetlands and other green places within the Gateway Area, maintaining core restoring pockets of nature near new housing. The Plan would also encourage walking and biking for residents by planning for walkable and bikeable communities, enabling fewer car trips for its residents and a more lively, community-feel to the neighborhood. Many of Arcata’s job, transit, and recreational opportunities are an easy walking distance from the Gateway Area (half mile or less), including the Plaza and Humboldt State University.
Let’s contrast the Gateway Project with another large project in the works: the North McKay Ranch. While the Gateway would develop an area that is already largely impacted, including a former millsite and other legacy industrial sites, the North McKay Ranch would build large, expensive houses on cul-de-sacs jutting into the McKay forest in Cutten. These homes built on previously undeveloped land will impact forest, riparian, and aquatic habitat. In contrast, infill housing built in the urban core has a negligible impact on wildlife, and if done the right way can actually reverse some of the negative impacts of previous urban development.
Instead of a development within the urban core of the city, the North McKay Ranch would add housing at the periphery. Building at the periphery means longer commutes and more traffic impacting our roads. Instead of a planned development, with the city and its residents playing a role in project development, North McKay is primarily subject to the whims and tastes of its developer. And so on.
Could the Gateway Plan be improved? Sure. For example, we think the planned sidewalks should be wider, and some optional amenities like electric vehicle charging stations should be made into requirements. But let’s not get twisted: These are improvements to something that is, at its core, already good. To try to kill the project through falling back to these points is shortsighted. To those willing to engage with civic government to advocate for making the project better, you have our unalloyed respect. But to those who will stop at nothing to kill this project, please consider the impacts your actions will have on housing prices and the environment. And to those who support it like we do, please show your support by signing RCCER’s petition encouraging local governments to pursue more projects like the Gateway Plan.
Executive Director, EPIC
Executive Director, Northcoast Environmental Center
Executive Director, Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities
Member, Redwood Coalition for Climate and Environmental Responsibility
Executive Director, Humboldt Baykeeper