Anatomy of a Development Part XII - Citizens Win Against University Ridge

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Ambling Unversity Development Group notified the planning department in a recent email that it will not pursue the University Ridge student dormitory project. This is a victory for the residents and homeowners of the Puget and Samish Neighborhoods whose quiet enjoyment of their properties would have been devastated by this ill-conceived plan to house over 500 students in the middle of a neighborhood of predominantly single-family homes. A substantial number of residents, aided by the legal resources available through Responsible Development, prevailed in a struggle for common sense development against a large, out-of-town corporation that had little regard for the effects of its proposal on the neighborhoods.

The 11.5 acre tract, owned by the Hawley Trust, is still availble but the city has not received any information regarding future plans for the parcel. All along, residents made it clear they were not against development of the land but that the proposed dormitory was totally out of character with its surroundings. Some argued the city ought to actively seek developers who would want to use the Infill Tool Kit in an area that is eminently suited to such housing forms and its more appropriate density.

The death blow to this project was probably dealt by the Bellingham Hearing Examiner who invoked the “rule of three” which states that no more than three unrelated persons can occupy a dwelling unit. [You can read more about this factor in my NWCitzen article of 31 Oct 13 entitled BMC Rule of Three Thwarts Plans.] Since the Ambling dormitory proposal called for over 100 four-bedroom dwelling units, Ambling faced the loss of income on more than 100 bedrooms and corresponding tenants unless a massive redesign of the buidlings was accomplished. Evidently, this factor produced a substanitally reduced income stream that was insufficient for the project to be economically viable.

Unfortunately, in fearful anticipation of this horrendous project actually being built, some nearby homeowners sold their homes and made unnecessary moves and job changes. Ambling owes these people an apology for the terrible disruption to their lives and their monetary losses.

In an email exchange I had earlier today with Bill Geyer, a planning consultant in Bellingham, he suggested the following in the aftermath of this near calamity: “...design preferences the neighborhood supports for the site to meet the current zoning density… and citywide, [a City] Council initiated review [of] BMC 20.08.020.C. “Rooming and Boarding House” to define specific zones this use is permitted. An easy text change would be to permit it only in the higher density zones (2500 sq ft per unit or less). This moots the issue of unlimited number of units as the development would occur in areas with adequate services (water, sewer, roads, transit).”

I agree with Bill that this Rooming and Boarding House ordinance was used in an inappropriate manner by the developer and, unfortunately, seconded by the city planning staff. For an explantaion of the density issues involved this this project, refer to the item at the asterisk (*) below.

Project development continues for two phases of student oriented apartment housing on Lincoln St. just south of the Fred Meyer complex. These complexes will likely house around 800-900 students. The developers are not related to the Ambling group.

*It is difficult to get a handle on the land use formula with this project since the developer seems to refer to both the number of units with respect to the plat allowances or the developers desires (variously 176 or 164) and to the number of bedrooms with respect to the “boarding house” use (576 or 527 according to the city’s webpage devoted to the project documents). The traffic and transportation analysis speaks to apartment units and calculates traffic use based on that number, while in other areas the applicant uses the number of bedrooms to justify the “boarding house” use (or vice-versa) and claims it could have asked for many more bedrooms – as if doing less were inherently commendable. It also appears that the 176 authorized units from the Hawley replat may never been specifically approved, except that the number 176 appeared on a plat during the replatting process. There seems to be oblique references to the 11.5 acres in question here (Tract F), but there is no indication as to how that number of units (176) was derived. (With the allowed 5,000 sq ft density applied to this 11.5 acres, one arrives at approximately 98/99 units.) But the developer wants to skirt these problematic numbers, which tend to be inconvenient, by contending that a “boarding house” allows for 250 sq. ft. per bedroom and that this is the factor for calculating the maximum density for this project. The 250 sq. ft. figure is not, I believe, a density factor but an occupancy standard. The absurdity of using the factor of 250 sq. ft. is manifest in that this factor would allow a maximum potential buildout of almost 2,000 bedrooms on about 5 acres (density of 400 persons per acre) which is the actual buildable portion of the 11.5 acres. Even now, the proposed density with this so-called “boarding house” is over 100 persons per acre, compared to the approximate 12 persons per acre density of the surrounding single family homes. Again, neighborhood character is ignored completely.” Source: Anatomy of a Development Part VI Hearing Examiner Date Set - A Broken Process, 26 Aug 13, NW Citizen.

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About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Abe Jacobson

Apr 02, 2014

Thanks for the informative report.

The Lincoln St. development of student housing is perfectly sited- on a major arterial, and very near the convenient bus connection to WWU campus. The building site west of Lincoln street is also devoid of pre-existing single-family homes, so it does not pose a threat to the single-family character of an existing neighborhood. If anything, the development performs a significant civic service by clearing out what used to be a tent encampment with the accompanying septic issues. Surely Bellingham is advanced enough and has enough resources to provide shelters for these poor marginal folks and not leave them camping in the woods.

The Planning and Development role in the whole University Ridge drama made the City planners look really inattentive and heartless, even issuing a tone-deaf consolation to the affected neighborhood to the effect, “don’t worry about your falling property values, because your tax assessment will go down.”

But on reflection I don’t really think that the planners are by nature inattentive and heartless. Rather, they’re almost dysfunctionally overburdened. City staffing, from Police to Planning and all over the org chart, has been hollowed-out by the contraction of local and state government finances in the past 6 years. Two mayors in succession have dazzled us with Powerpoint claiming that the staffing is adequate, but anyone trying to deal with the City immediately senses an overworked, hammered workforce.

Compounding the problem is that both of these mayors have focused energy and resources on a new, highly-visible edifice complex, the port redevelopment. When a hollowed-out staff is confronted by a vast expansion of required staff work, guess what gets done poorly or not at all? The ongoing grubby, unglamorous function of neighborhood support and maintenance, that’s what.

Abe Jacobson

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Wendy Harris

Apr 02, 2014

I am glad for Ambling’s withdrawal, but I would hardly consider the Lincoln St. development as “perfectly sited.”  This area has SERIOUS run-off problems.  During a storm event this winter, I drove down Lincoln and considered it a safety risk, (judged by my experience of having lived for many years in a city where rain and flooding killed people every year.) The Lincoln Street project has resulted in removal of many trees, and increased impervious surface, never an ideal situation for a area subject to flooding. 

Another concern I have is the close placement of this student housing next to the freeway. We know that the exhaust fumes and diesel particulates of cars and trucks are carcinogenic and can take years off your life, with the impacts not showing up until decades later.  Increasing, we are siting housing for those on limited budgets in these undesirable locations, raising issues of economic justice.

Where is the BIA now, with their cries of the need for affordable housing? Does not the “right” to affordable housing include the right to safe housing?

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Delaine Clizbe

Apr 03, 2014

Wendy is correct to question the Lincoln Street project.  I too have concerns with why we continue to place multi family housing in the most undesirable locations….next to freeway, middle of down town ect ect.  I can’t imagine having to raise a child with only the freeway as a backyard.  This policy builds ghettos. 

I also find it ironic that the man who is pushing the City of Bellingham to force building inspections on landlords because of horrible housing offered to WWU students worked so hard to eliminate brand new, built to code, no mold student housing. 

Finally, I can’t believe there is not outrage that the COB used a discriminatory law “no more than 3 unrelated people living in one house” to kick this project out of town.  As a landlord, I find it very concerning that the City wants me to verify that people are related in order to rent to them.  What is “related”?  Do they now need to prove they are married?  I can think of many examples that if I follow COB code I will end up paying a big fat Fair Housing Act fine.

So overall, the citizens did not win.  Dick won. The neighborhood nimby’s won.  But the 50% of our population who live in rental housing did not win.

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 03, 2014

@Abe,

Thanks for your usually well-thought-out comments. There is a combination of personnel shortages in our city government and a lack of coherence in our planning processes and ordinances. I believe municipal governments’ first duty is to protect the citizenry from corporate/business control and excesses and not to favor development/profits over the health and welfare of people.  Lest we forget, it is we who create the laws that allow corporate activity.  We can also recreate these laws so that corporations serve the common weal and not the other way around.  Unfortunately we seem to have forgotten that we can do this or have been fooled into thinking the opposite.

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 03, 2014

@Wendy,

The runoff issues have been brought up many times and quite vehemently during our meetings with the city planners and developers of the Lincoln St. apartment/commercial complex.  How well these concerns will be heeded remains to be seen as citizens are caught up in engineer-speak and geologist/techno-babble.  Again, as I implied to Abe above, the city ought to be championing a thorough ad comprehensive look at the drainage issues above and below Lincoln St.

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 03, 2014

@Delaine,

Your point and Wendy’s point are well taken about the dangers of living and raising children near a freeway. However, children will likely not be affected here since the developers, as you may be aware, are marketing these units to the student population.  That ought to drive away any families where the leases will likely be by bedroom and not by dwelling unit.  That being said, exposure of young adults to the concentrated poison spewed by those vehicle using I-5 is scarcely more preferential.

As for my work to ensure the health and safety of renters, this has nothing to do with the now defunct University Ridge, a totally inappropriate development (no matter how new and clean it may have been) in a totally inappropriate location.  Make no mistake, this was high-end housing that was not going to attract or draw from the student population that is now condemned to live in poorly maintained and dangerous rentals. 

As for the “rule of three”, you are aware from my NWCitizen article of 31 Oct 2013 that laws limiting the number of unrelated in rentals were upheld in 1974 in a case called Belle Terre v. Boraas ( http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/belle.html ) with civil libertarian Justice William O. Douglas [who grew up in Yakima] writing for the majority. I do agree that our BMC ordinance should be updated to include LGBT couples and partners. That is only fair and just.  But do not worry about being fined under the Fair Housing Act.  Our city attorney reviewed our ordinance and published her (at the time) findings in a 2008 agenda bill that you can read here.  ftp://ftp.cob.org/council/packets/2008/06_jun/23/packets/23jun2008_AB18021.pdf  

No Delaine, I did not “win”.  The citizens and residents of Puget and Samish neighborhoods prevailed over a carpetbagger corporation that thought it could do what it pleased no matter how many lives were negatively affected or property values debased.

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Delaine Clizbe

Apr 03, 2014

@Dick,  I will not be putting yours or the City attorneys opinions to the test.  It is very clear violation of Fair Housing Laws for me to inquire about family status.  Say four women, or four men, want to rent my two bedroom.  How would you suggest I find out if they are related or not?  I can’t.  If I ask I am in violation. 

So where do you want multi-family housing?  You seem fine with the development next to the freeway.  Let’s re-cap what has happened in the last few years.  No university ridge.  Downzone of Happy Valley to single family.  Chuckanut Forest, hell no can’t have multi-family there.  Padden Creek, hell no can’t have any development there either. 

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Delaine Clizbe

Apr 04, 2014

I ran across an interesting blog by Alan Durning about affordable housing and occupancy limits.  According to this writer, Bellingham has a rather restrictive limit compared with much of the state including Seattle (8 unrelated people).  I think he sums up the whole argument best with this comment.

“Most disturbing, because occupancy limits are so flagrantly irrelevant or ill-suited to their purported ends, I argue that many of their supporters are likely actually motivated by something else, something old and vile: veiled strains of hatefulness. Occupancy limits, for many, remain a socially acceptable way to discriminate against immigrants, the young, the poor, or the otherwise “other.” But all that is for next time.”

In my opinion this is exactly what is going on in Bellingham.  Supporters of rental inspections and those that push out multi-family housing in their neighborhoods do it under a thinly veiled disguise of altruism.  I’m calling hogwash on them!

Here is the entire blog series.  Worth the time to read.
http://daily.sightline.org/blog_series/legalizing-inexpensive-housing/

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 05, 2014

Delaine,

If more than three people want to rent a dwelling unit, a landlord merely informs them that the BMC limits the number of unrelated tenants to three unless they are a family as described in the city ordinance.  If they are a protected class within the definition of family, then the prospective renters then have to let you know that, at which time you go ahead with the lease. If they do not identify themselves as part of a protected class, how are you to be held liable?

As I mentioned in an earlier comment above, our ordinance has to be updated to include recent Washington State legislation regarding valid marriages or other kinds of partnerships. 

As for multi-family housing, it belongs in multi-family neighborhoods.  That being said, Padden Trails was about a REZONE from single family to multi-family at the outskirts of the city and not placement of a multi-family project in an existing multi-family zoned area.  University Ridge was not about multi-family zoning, which the neighborhood accepts, but about the appropriateness of a specific project.  Happy Valley had been the site of rapid growth of multi-family housing for years and had certainly done its share to accommodate infill, especially associated with the university population.  To characterize Chuckanut Forest as a debate about multi-family housing is incorrect and ignores the many different aspects of developing that parcel, also at the outskirts of the city.

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 05, 2014

I have come across Durning before and he has many interesting and valid things to say on many topics.  I do, however, vehemently resent your implication that I and those who have been working for the health and safety of renters in this city are somehow tied with those who would use occupancy limits to discriminate against the poor, etc.  This conflation has no basis in fact. 

I might remind you that is precisely the landlords and their representative organizations who have been fighting for over a decade those who want to ensure that rental housing is held to a minimum set of standards.  Rental licensing and inspection are moves to protect the most vulnerable and poorest of our citizenry not to mention our student population who are preyed upon by landlords year after year. Furthermore, I have absolutely no idea this, your statement, means: ...“those that push out multi-family housing in their neighborhoods… under a thinly veiled disguise of altruism.”


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Wendy Harris

Apr 05, 2014

My concern is not about children, per se, but the fact that those without financial means are getting stuck living in undesirable and unsafe locations. I am also thinking of the age restricted housing being built next to the freeway and the Meridian exit across from Home Depot. It is an economic justice issue.. the rich get richer, but must the poor get sicker?

We are running out of safe land to develop, both because what remains is largely critical areas, and because only a certain amount of density can be sustained long term while keeping the land upon which we depend ecologically functional.

We are in a global environmental crisis. We are literally killings ourselves as a species, and the UN just issued a special alert that it is happening faster, and with greater impacts, than previously anticipated.  In other words, time is running out to address the problem, if that is still possible. So isn’t that really the bigger issue?  We can not continue to grow, and these conversations, and municipal actions, based on the old reality, are literally, insane.

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Dick Conoboy

Apr 06, 2014

Wendy,

I think you know that I cannot agree more with your overall contention regarding the treatment of the poor and the degradation of the commons.  In the particular case of these Lincoln St. apartments though, it is yet unclear that the clientele will consist of those of poor or even modest financial means.  At least one of these projects (there are two separate apartment complexes to be built) will likely be rented by room and not by dwelling unit.  When I asked the representative of that project’s developer to provide information on the price per bedroom rental, she refused to divulge any information in that regard, saying that wasn’t her area (hogwash of course).  That tells me that the rentals will probably not be cheap but somewhat in the manner of University Ridge with $650 and up for each BEDROOM!  Those 4 bedroom units would have pulled in $2600 per month each. You can rent a pretty high end house here in Bellingham for that.  So I doubt that these units will pull in the students of modest means who will remain vulnerable to a totally unregulated and saturated (read predatory) rental market where groups of young renters (or young workers for that matter) must pool their $200 to $400 per month each to rent a wreck of a house or crowd themselves, at times clandestinely, into apartment units.

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