During a long and sometimes tense meeting on Wednesday night, the Arcata City Council took major steps toward addressing homelessness, moving forward with creating a Safe Parking Program for people living out of their vehicles, and adopting the zoning changes to allow two Valley West motels to be converted into housing for the homeless.
Valley West Hotel Housing Projects
The council voted 4-1, with Councilmember Brett Watson dissenting, to adopt an ordinance making the necessary changes to the city’s zoning code that will allow two Valley West hotels – the Days Inn & Suites and the Red Roof Inn on Valley West Boulevard – to be converted into permanent supportive housing for homeless and chronically homeless individuals. The hotels will be purchased and managed by local nonprofit Arcata House Partnership and local developer Danco and will provide residents with 24-hour on-site management and access to support services.
The ordinance was already discussed at length and approved by the council during its Dec. 15 meeting and returned to the council for adoption on Wednesday as an item on the consent calendar – items that are considered routine and passed in one motion, without discussion. But after the item was pulled from the consent calendar, a somewhat uncomfortable debate ensued.
Councilmember Watson said his reason for voting against the ordinance is because he felt the project was moving too fast and he felt there needed to be more opportunity for public input.
Prior to the vote, Watson prompted a discussion about the public process surrounding this and other development projects, questioning if the council felt that there should be more opportunity for community input on such projects. During what dissolved into a confusing debate at times, members of the council and the staff took turns showing frustration.
Watson started by asking many questions about the Valley West properties and the proposed projects, saying that he had tried to have the questions answered by staff prior to the meeting, to no avail.
“I do want to apologize for taking up time with these questions,” Watson said during the meeting. “I did try adamantly today to get my questions answered by staff, but I was not responded to. They were not available to help me. So it kind of hampered my ability to do my job.”
At a point, Vice Mayor Emily Goldstein asked if she could make a motion and was reminded that public comment hadn’t yet been taken. Watson was annoyed at the interruption, saying that he was still asking questions and making comments.
In addition to not feeling his questions could be answered before the meeting and feeling he did not have adequate time to review the project, Watson also felt that some of the Planning Commission’s concerns about the project had not been given enough consideration. (During its Dec. 14 meeting, the Planning Commission voted not to recommend approval of the ordinance and during the council meeting the follow day, Watson made a failed motion for the council to hold a special meeting to allow the commission more time to review the project.) Circling back to the public involvement, Watson questioned if the City should have a more “robust” process for public input on housing projects.
Several other council members agreed that there should be more public involvement moving forward and Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazar mentioned that she had discussed that issue earlier in the day with Community Development Director David Loya.
At this, Watson seemed perturbed. “It’s interesting to know that another councilmember was provided time with staff that I was denied,” he said.
City Manager Karen Diemer then chimed in to explain that the council can agree at a future meeting add a provision to the loan term agreement (the city will be loaning Danco and Arcata House Partnership money for the project, which will be repaid, with three percent interest by Homekey grant money) requiring more community engagement. Diemer said that adding that language to the ordinance would not be the best option.
Watson said he appreciated the clarification. He then added, “I’m just wondering, how’s the council feel that I wasn’t able to access staff today?”
Mayor Atkins-Salazar responded awkwardly, “Well, I don’t think we’re legally allowed to speak on that because there are reasons why you have limited access and I don’t want to get in trouble for speaking out of turn.”
Atkins-Salazar then asked City Attorney Nancy Diamond to speak to the issue.
“From what I understand your questions came in at the very last minute,” Diamond said.
“They came in early in the day,” Watson interjected.
“Let me finish,” Diamond said. “You’ve been talking about people talking over you, so now you wait for a minute. There is a protocol for you to have access to staff – as there is for every council member– and you can access staff through that method. And I think you did not want to do it that way and David’s time is very limited. I know he had other meetings. And the mayor, as you well know and remember, actually needs to be interacting with staff in order to be able to facilitate the meetings. So I think that’s enough. I don’t think that we’re on topic anymore. I think we’ve moved off the agenda item. And we can take this up in closed session further if you would like.”
To that, Watson said he would like this discussion to be placed on a future closed session agenda.
During the public comment period, several community members spoke against the project, citing concerns over the impacts the housing developments would have on the Valley West neighborhood. Others supported the project because of the dire need for housing in our community.
And most of the council members agreed that need to house the homeless outweighed any potential issues with the project or with the speed at which the project approval is moving forward.
“If we were dragging our feet on this and leaving people out on the streets, I think we’d be hearing about that too,” Atkins-Salazar said. “It is something that we’re moving quickly on because it’s a crisis and we have people on the streets.”
Safe Parking Program
Following a shorter and not-so-tense discussion, the council voted unanimously to authorize the city manager to execute a month-to-month lease agreement with the owners of the property at 1680 Samoa Boulevard, allowing the property to be used for homeless individuals to safely and legally park and stay in their vehicles.
The property will be able to hold between 30 and 40 vehicles and will be equipped with other services, such as bathrooms, water and electricity. The plan, Diemer said during the meeting, is to park all of the vehicles in the large warehouse building on the property, providing residents with additional security and protection from inclement weather.
The reason the City selected the property on Samoa Boulevard, rather than a city-owned property, is because no available city-owned properties had both the proximity to services and the existing infrastructure – such as fencing, a covered building, and utilities – that the Samoa property has. Even though the city will have to pay rent on this property, Diemer said, the cost is offset by the fact that the city won’t have to pay to install the infrastructure.
Funding for the project will come from $685,000 in ARPA funds that the council set aside earlier this year for establishing a Safe Parking Program. The budget is meant to fund the pilot project for one year and will need to cover utilities, services and rent on the property. Although the rent could be up to $6,500 a month, Diemer said she is still hopeful that the budget could cover a year of operating expenses.
Because the project is funded by the city’s ARPA grant money, unlike the Valley West hotel projects, the city will have a lot more say in who is invited to stay on the property. The city plans to conduct outreach to homeless people parking in Arcata, including in the HealthSPORT parking lot – an area the city has received many complaints about.
The city is still seeking an agency to manage the program, and a request for proposals (RFP) is currently being circulated with a deadline of Jan. 13. The council will most likely select a proposal during its next meeting on Jan. 19.
- Safe Parking Program: Arcata City Council Will Consider Leasing Property on Samoa Boulevard to Provide a Legal Place for Homeless People to Sleep in Their Vehicles
- Arcata House Partnership and Danco Seek to Convert Two Valley West Hotels Into Homeless Housing Developments
- Arcata City Council to Consider Converting Two Valley West Hotels into Homeless Housing; Planning Commission Hesitant About the Project
- Arcata City Council Approves Plan to Convert Valley West Hotels to Homeless Housing, Reviews ‘Gateway Area Plan’ to Create High-Density Housing in Town