The proposed student dormitory project by Ambling University Development of Valdosta, Georgia is moving forward in the planning approval process. This project, sited on 11 acres owned by Irv and Joan Hawley of Lopez Island, is intended to house almost 600 students. [Read previous articles on University Ridge here.] The acreage is located between Puget and Nevada Streets, just north of Consolidation Ave., in the Puget Neighborhood in an area already zoned multi-family residential. The Puget Neighborhood Association’s board of directors has voted to take no position on the development, a decision that is, in fact, a tacit endorsement. (University Ridge will be on the agenda at the next Puget Association meeting on 21 May.) The Samish Neighborhood to the south, upon which many of the effects of this dormitory will also fall, has voted to write advisory letters to the city on various aspects of the project such as traffic and storm water control. [Note to the reader: I am on the board of the Samish Association and MNAC but am writing this as an individual citizen.]
Unfortunately for those who have invested their money in homes adjacent to the 11-acre parcel on which this dormitory is to be built, there is no accompanying rezone proposal that might have prodded the City Council to get involved as it did in defeating the miserably inappropriate Padden Trails project, dubbed by many as “edgefill.” There, the developers wanted to distort the intent of the infamous Infill Tool Kit the city invented several years ago to assist in creating infill within our urban centers or villages. The Tool Kit allows for transitional style housing that bridges the gap between single-family areas and high-density multi-family urban villages. In the case of University Ridge, there is no City Council involvement in the process according to current ordinances. But there is movement afoot within the council to attempt to bring the Infill Tool Kit to bear in single-family zoned neighborhoods, a use that was vehemently opposed by the citizenry at the time the Tool Kit was debated by the council several years ago. Mind you, the Tool Kit has not yet been used in any multi-family neighborhood, but some council members think it might be just ducky to place these housing types in established single family areas before builders even attempt their use in those places for which they were initially intended, such as the acreage on which these four 5-story dormitories by Ambling are planned. So much for transitional housing types and council intent.
The area along the eastern and northern boundaries of this project is single family zoned and already built out. Toward the northern end of the project area are acres of wetland that is owned by the city and also some single-family-type condominium homes and some garden apartments that give way to small commercial buildings on Lakeway Dr. Along Nevada St. and Marionberry Court, bordering the western side of the project area, are newer single-family homes built on land that is zoned multi-family. Other single-family homes of a much earlier vintage (without sidewalks) can be found along a very narrow Nevada St. at its northern end toward Lakeway. Many of these homes are now poorly maintained and operated as rentals, about which the neighboring homeowners have complained over the years to little avail. To the south, along the 100 blocks of 41st, 42nd, 43rd, and 44th Streets, are single-family homes on small lots, 36% of which have devolved into rentals, to the utter dismay of the remaining homeowners who must abide the unplanned increase in density, parking issues, noise, poor maintenance and litter. The promise of 600 additional young renters at University Ridge and their accompanying automobiles (space for 432 cars is planned for the project) is not inviting. WWU at Happy Valley has crossed I-5 and is being recreated around the Lincoln Park & Ride.
Let us look at some other aspects of this bid to dormitorize the area.
Since we left off earlier speaking of automobiles, let us consider the impact of 423 vehicles on the immediate area. I briefly looked at the traffic study and it appears a case can be made that peak hour surges from a development such as Ambling proposes will not be a significant issue, since students are not 9-5 creatures going to work in the morning and returning in the evening. They are, however, 24/7 creatures and that is the point. For many years, there were four rental homes on my street, scattered among 12 single-family homes. The coming and going from these rentals continued throughout the evening and into the night. Oddly enough, the daytime was the quietest period. Consider then, hundreds of residents and their visitors coming and going all day, every day. The concept of quiet enjoyment will fail. Moreover, the assumption of the study is that most students will choose to walk to the Park & Ride – a short trek on foot. I have walked from the planned entrance on Consolidation Ave. to the bus stops and found that 15 minutes is a reasonable estimate from the center of mass of the development. How attractive will this stroll be in the dead of winter with rain and snow and an uphill climb back to the dormitory in the dark and cold?
And where will visitors park their vehicles? We may also ask if the 432 spaces allocated for residents will be sufficient. All these cars must go someplace and the adjacent streets are the only choice. Nevada, Marionberry, 44th and Consolidation are the nearby options. The residents on Puget St. above the project may fare no better. Told that their views would be improved as the trees are cut to prepare the site, they were not told of the inevitable noise that would emanate from the dormitory buildings and their balconies facing Puget St. Furthermore, although they considered themselves safe from the parking issue since there would be no vehicular access to Puget St. from the project, these residents can now contemplate the convenient trail that is planned from the project entrance along the Consolidation right-of-way to Puget St. where parking is available along the west side of the road. Given that 25% of the single-family homes along that portion of Puget are already rentals with insufficient parking, the competition for parking spaces may be interesting. The noise is a given.
The local colleges have nothing to do with this project. In fact, Western Washington University is the only college level institution with a dog in the hunt. Western has on-campus housing with about 4,000 beds in various sized units. 92% of freshmen at WWU normally sign up for on-campus housing. Such housing is not mandatory, so toward the end of the academic year there are losses when students bail out for the perceived freedom of renting in the city. This produces vacancies and income shortages at the on-campus units that cannot be easily filled by other incoming students until the cycle repeats in September. WWU, the largest fish in the college pond, does not foresee any growth of the student population in the coming years. Also, a recent addition to the on-campus Buchanan Towers dormitory allowed WWU to shed some supplemental off-campus rental housing that was under its management.
With almost 600 beds to fill, University Ridge will be in direct competition with university housing and will also draw students from the current off-campus rental market. As one university official said to me, “Who will be poached first?” It depends. The University Ridge units will not come cheap. Earlier estimates mentioned in meetings with the developers were $650 per month for a bedroom in a 4-bedroom unit, and more per month for a bedroom in a more exclusive 2-bedroom unit. (That’s about $4-5 million per year in rental income.) Right now, five students can ostensibly rent a 4-5 bedroom single-family home for $1,800 to $2,000 per month and split the rent ($360 -$400 per person). And, they have no supervision to speak of. If a student is already renting in an apartment building, what is the incentive to move to University Ridge where they may face additional constraints not found in more traditional and publicly available rental housing?
More questions then arise. Will Ambling University Development be able to fill these dormitory buildings? What is the fail-option? What adaptive uses might this oddly (built as dorms) constructed set of building have? Will Ambling University Development even maintain ownership of the property? If they sell out, (Ambling sells some of its developments) what becomes of all the promises of high-quality management and control of the students? On the fiscal side, the profits from this concern will leave the city of Bellingham, going to Ambling in Georgia and other development firms associated with this project in Seattle and California. Also of note is that at present, nobody concerned with the planning, build-out, management or future of this development will live anywhere near the finished product. Out of sight, out of mind. The jobs initially created will be essentially construction-related, but temporary. Staffing an apartment/dormitory complex does not involve high-end job creation. We can look mostly at jobs for grounds and building maintenance personnel and on-site management including the ever ubiquitous, useless and poorly paid security guards. Will the temptation to contain salary and benefit costs result in the hiring of low paid student managers to oversee an off-campus dormitory complex?
We still have not heard from the fire department or the police department regarding their ability to service the site. The 4,000 on-campus students are served by a dedicated university police force of 15 officers who have to deal with police matters in a limited area. The University Ridge dormitory will rely on the Bellingham Police Department, whose ranks are already thin and cannot respond effectively to neighborhood concerns as it is. There is one police officer assigned to each of 8 patrol areas as it stands now. That is less than thin. As for the fire department, firefighters will have to contend with a single entrance to the project. I understand there is a secondary access right-of-way onto Nevada St. that is not, at this time, to be improved for use.
The unfortunate fact is that much about the topics above will not enter into the process in deciding the desirability of these dormitory buildings. Much of what we hold important with respect to quality of life and quiet enjoyment, will not be considered. Our processes do not capture those aspects. Our ordinances, that are meant to help with making and maintaining community, are poorly enforced. Little thought will be given to preserving the character of the neighborhood. These are the non-priority matters to which our city officials, the police and fire departments do not or cannot respond – lack of resources. We know the tune. The result is the creation of places which are either unlivable themselves, or that create an atmosphere of un-livability for others. This is exactly what is about to happen with the University Ridge dormitory development.