The Arcata Planning Commission didn’t have its promised discussion of the controversial Gateway Area Plan during its Tuesday night meeting. Instead, the more than three-and-a-half-hour long meeting was almost completely consumed by another agenda item – a project proposal that would remove 49 trees and add 102 apartments to the Westwood Garden Apartments at the end of Westwood Court in Arcata.
The property, which is one of several sites in Arcata owned by Strombeck Properties, currently holds three buildings with a total of 60 two-bedroom apartments. Strombeck Properties and its hired consulting firm LACO Associates is proposing adding 12 buildings, which would hold 102 total one-bedroom units. Three of the buildings would be placed around the perimeter of the property and would include parking on the ground floor with apartments above. The other nine apartment buildings would be built in the green space in the center of the property.
In addition to a design review permit, the project planners also submitted a permit application to remove 49 trees from the property to make way for the new buildings, and a request for an exemption from the city’s building requirement for private outdoor spaces. The requirement is for units to include 150 square feet of private, outdoor space, and the applicants proposed that their apartments include 48 square feet. The lower units would include this in the form of a private patio and the upper units would include a private balcony.
More than a dozen community members attended the meeting to voice their concerns over the project, many of them residents of the Westwood Garden Apartments or of the Westwood neighborhood. Though a couple of people were in support of the project because of the city’s dire need for affordable housing, most commenters were strongly opposed to the proposed project, voicing concerns over increased traffic, the close proximity the building would have to each other, the loss of green space and the potential of the buildings blocking the sunlight for the existing units.
“This is a wonderful, precious place to live,” Adam Taylor, a Westwood Garden Apartment resident said during the meeting. “And the design does not take the existing buildings into account whatsoever. It sees them as an obstacle to build around.”
Another resident of the apartments, Raelina Krikston, who is currently running for Arcata City Council, said that the design would “sandwich” the buildings together, causing privacy issues for the residents. Krikston suggested that the design be amended to have fewer buildings with more stories.
One of the commenters who spoke in favor of the project, Daniel Baggot, said that the addition of more units would provide much-needed housing to the community, and said that this housing would be especially ideal for Cal Poly Humboldt students, who need affordable housing. “This solves a primary need in a cost-feasible way,” Baggot said. “It is dense housing, but that is more and more the state of the world.”
Several people were concerned that, because the proposed apartments only have one bedroom, only students would be moving in and that it wouldn’t be suitable for families. Several people even referred to the additional units as “student housing.”
Steve Strombeck, the property owner, clarified that this project is not student housing, it is “market-rate housing” that would be available to anyone. “We rent to any and all people,” he said.
Though all of the planning commissioners agreed that there is a need for more housing and for infill housing, like this project, most of them were not in support of the proposed project design. For the most part, the commissioners didn’t have a problem with making an exemption for the outdoor space requirements (David Loya, community development director for the City of Arcata pointed out that an exception has been made for nearly all housing developments in Arcata). But they did have issues with the removal of existing green space and with cutting down 49 trees, some which are pretty big and have been there since the apartments were first built in 1967.
After a long discussion, the commission unanimously voted to continue the project to a later meeting and requested that the planners remove one of the buildings from the design, and to maintain more of the existing green space and to leave more trees uncut. Strombeck said that he could probably bring something back to the commission in as soon as two weeks. (Commission Chair Julie Vaissade-Elcock had recused herself from the discussion because her husband had done work on the project.)
The commission did also have a lot of issues with the overall design of the buildings, but did not request any specific changes be made. Loya told the commission that, because of California’s Housing Accountability Act and because the city has no current design standards written in its code, the commission conditioned its approval of a project on the design elements.
Planning Commissioner John Barstow also pointed out that the more the commission requires certain design elements, the more expensive the housing will be to build and to rent.
“As far as design goes, the original buildings are not that great and the proposed buildings are not that great,” Barstow said during the meeting. “Yes I would like to see an improvement and a better looking design. But anything we do to improve the design will increase the cost.”
The project will return to the Planning Commission at a later meeting. Because the meeting was so long, the commission also voted to continue discussions of the Gateway Area Plan to its next meeting.