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University Ridge Dormitory, The Infill Tool Kit and Our Neighborhoods

By On
• In Bellingham, Planning, WWU,

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.

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

Delaine Clizbe

May 15, 2013

Personally, I think a City should require every neighborhood to have some multi-family housing.  That would spread out the concentration so that no neighborhood becomes a ghetto.  Unfortunately, Cities do not seem to do that.  Bellingham would currently prefer that we pack the downtown with all the density that folks don’t want in their neighborhoods.  I wonder how that will turn out in 20 years.  I am always suspicious of arguments against multi-family housing projects (in somebodies neighborhood) ....always comes across as a little elitist to me.

I actually am pretty surprised that you, Mr. Conoboy are so opposed to this project.  We have been lead to believe, in several City Council work sessions, that WWU students live in such absolutely horrible conditions that the City must put in place a brand new rental housing inspection program.  Of course the program comes with huge fees to landlords who are evil and force WWU students to live in moldy houses.  This new dorm is a god send to these poor students. 

This area is zoned multi-family.  Folks who invested in property surrounding the site should have done their homework and looked at how the neighborhood was zoned before purchasing.  And if the zoning changed after they purchased…...well that sucks.  Happens to people all the time.  (I’m thinking of the zoning change in the once Yew Street Road UGA.  People are losing money on that deal too.)  The refrain usually is something like: “there is no guarantees when investing in property”.  I bet you have used that refrain yourself Mr. Conoboy. (perhaps on the Padden Trails project?)

Whether the project makes economic sense or not is not for any of us to decide.  That is for the owner/builder and their financing to decide.  If they build a mistake economically they will pay the price.  And then the public may actually win.  If they go bankrupt maybe Catholic Community Services can put a residential treatment center in the facility.  Hey whats good for downtown should be good for your neighborhood too right?  Or maybe the Whatcom Housing Authority will take it over with the money raised from the new tax levy.

When I attended WWU I lived in an rental on Wilson Avenue.  I walked to school daily, uphill, in the rain, snow, sleet….perhaps barefoot too:)  They are 18 year old college students,  I don’t think a 15 minute walk is an issue.  I’d say that is about standard for much of the housing around campus.

It seems to me that you have a general dislike for renters.  As an owner of several quality rentals in town I kindof take issue with that.  My renters do not operate on the 24/7 basis you describe.  I have had a variety of renters from HUD housing recipients, to college students, to lawyers.  99% of them good.  The 1% usually has a dog, which always seems to cause issues.  Bellingham reportedly is made up of about 50% rental households.  I think that is pretty huge and out of whack.  But that is not the fault of renters but rather may be an economic issue, whether it be cost of housing, limited supply of housing or lack of family wage jobs. In addition, we live in a college town which has it’s own quirky pluses and minuses.  There are plenty of options for not living in Bellingham…..Lynden perhaps?

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Dick Conoboy

May 16, 2013

Delaine,

Thanks for the substantial comment.  You can call me Dick.  I find Mr. Conoboy much too formal.  :-)

I agree that neighborhoods should have multi-family housing.  The area around Nevada, Puget and Consolidation is full of apartments.  Nobody is arguing that issue.  As for the city, it would like a denser core so that workers might reduce or eliminate commuting.  That makes sense to me.  Call me elitist if you wish, however, I am not sure that that includes asking the city to be coherent in its planning and development processes.  Were it not for the council, we would now have multi-family at Padden Trails in the form of the Infill Tool Kit at the edge of town and thousands more vehicle trips per day to boot.  The area around Lincoln and Lakeway is already very dense with a mobile home park and apartment buildings.  One more apartment building is slated for Lincoln St. just south of the Fred Meyer complex.  It would make sense to have a transitional area such as 11 acres in question where one might logically use the Infill Tool Kit to increase density in a gradual manner from the surrounding single family zone.  Four 5-story dormitories are not transitional in any way, shape or form.

It is not only WWU students who live in poor conditions.  We have plenty of young workers and families of modest means who have to play in the crap shoot of renting a home or an apartment. Where are these folks to go? They have little money to start with, so offering them a great, clean place for $650/mo. per bedroom is not exactly helpful except to those who have money in the first place.  As for the “huge fees” under a rental health and safety ordinance, no fee has been fixed.  The council is talking about $24 per year for a unit.  $2 a month.  But even that has not yet been set. Just where is the “huge”?

Just because the area is zoned mult-family does not mean that the city or the neighborhood has to accept any project that comes along.  We all have a voice and we have that voice all the time.  Padden Trails was just a dumb idea designed to make as much money for the developers as possible at the expense of not only those around it but the city as a whole.  University Ridge is a bad idea from many angles and the local residents there have every right to fight it.  By the way, my home is far enough away from this proposed monstrosity that it will effect me little just as you , who live in the county far away from the hustle and bustle & surrounded by trees, will experience no effect at all.  What I reject is seeing residents and homeowners railroaded.  I also reject the notion that people have to live in squalor or danger to afford a rental. 

“Whether the project makes economic sense or not is not for any of us to decide.”  Really?  We should have no concern about allowing a buildout that has problematic adaptive use?  It would cost millions of dollars a year to run those four buildings as a treatment center.  Where would those funds come from? 

Well, Delaine, i guess you got me on my dislike for renters.  I hate them so much that I have been working for ensuring their health and safety now for half a decade.  Perhaps you might have missed all the letters, newspaper articles and blog entries I have devoted to the topic.  I invite you to look at my blog at http://www.zonemaven.blogspot.com/ and then judge for yourself the level at which I despise renters.

I am happy that you are such a good landlord.  We need good landlords.  Perhaps you can join with me in ensuring the quality of all the 17,000 rental units in Bellingham.

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Delaine Clizbe

May 16, 2013

I have heard many different fees thrown out there.  It seems to change each time they meet…..

I stand corrected.  You like renters, you don’t like landlords:)  I will not help you in your charge as I don’t believe in your methods.  When I purchase a house, I am responsible for making sure it is liveable and safe.  It would not be suggested that the seller of the house: A)have a business license to sell his house B) pay an inspection fee to assure I am buying a safe house.  See?  I expect tenants to be offered what I am offered.  If they want to order an inspection of the house they are renting fine,  they are welcome to do so and are welcome to pay for it.

Personally, I just don’t think this project is that bad.  Where are the million of dollars coming from to put in the Catholic Community project downtown?  Where are the millions of dollars coming from for Whatcom Housing Authorities behemoth buildings downtown? 

Currently our clean, safe, mold free rentals with an awesome landlord:) go for $515 a month per bedroom…....they are never empty.  So I don’t think the $650 is out of line.  For that $650 they get a bedroom and don’t have to constantly find room mates.  They are responsible only for their $650 and not for the rest of the house.  Does that make sense?  There is value in not having to coordinate finding and keeping roommates in a four bedroom house.

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Dick Conoboy

May 16, 2013

Delaine,

I am miffed that you keep telling me whom I like and do not like. I neither like nor dislike landlords.  There are some specific landlords I dislike because of the filthy junk they offer to their tenants.  I think some tenants need to be more civil but I do not particularly dislike them either.  I want to see that each tenant has a safe place to live.  The city can ensure that that happens with an inspection program that will not devastate the rental industry.  These rental safety and health ordinances exist by the hundreds all over the country.  I have found only one that was repealed after it was passed.  Call Mitch Nickolds,the code enforcement officer in Pasco, and ask him how well their ordinance has been working for the last 15 years.  Guess what?  The rental industry has not collapsed there.

The canard that one should be responsible for making sure that a rental is safe before signing the lease is, just that, a canard. No renter could possibly be expected to know enough about plumbing, ventilation, electrical systems, structures, vermin, fire safety and mold to make a sufficient judgment.  The same goes for landlords whose ignorance and inattention has already displaced 13 student in the last 18-20 months almost killing several in fires that were preventable BY THE LANDLORDS.  Read my blog. Sheesh!

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Delaine Clizbe

May 16, 2013

Mr. Conoboy,
So sorry that you are miffed.  I’m a bit miffed too.  I’m miffed because you seem to want to make me responsible for things I am not responsible for.  I have read your blog and it scares the living s*** out of me.  Really, I am to blame that a tenant blocks their exit from a house?  Really, I am to blame for no batteries in a smoke detector after a tenant has lived there for 8 months?

What we need in this country is some personal responsibility.  Unfortunately you can not legislate that.  What you also can not do is MAKE people follow the rules.  Sorry but you can’t.  For example, I have had CO detectors in my rentals with gas heat since I bought them in 1998.  In our personal residence we have had them since the beginning of time.  (In our rentals with electric heat and no gas on the premises I have had them since it was announced they would be required even if no gas heat, which is a stupid rule, but I digress)  I do not need the Government to tell me how to protect myself and my tenants.  However, City Councilmember Jack Weiss admitted that he did not have a CO monitor in his house and even though the State said he had to have one he did not install it by the deadline.  Get my point?

And as far as little problems like folks renting out accessory dwellings in your neighborhood, this will not solve that issue.  In fact, requiring landlords to register will likely cause some of them to go underground….and then they can be really bad to their tenants.  Want proof?  My family has rentals in other towns that require them to “register” their units for a nominal $5 fee.  Guess how many years they have not registered?  So yes Pasco may say their program is working.  And it probably is for the landlords who play by the rules.  But they can’t very well monitor the ones who don’t play by the rules can they?

Every tenant has a choice.  When they walk into a place and it is “filthy junk” they can decide not to rent that unit. 

“No renter could possibly be expected to know enough about plumbing…..”  I agree they don’t.  However, neither do I.  When I purchase a residence I hire an inspector at my expense to tell me what is wrong with the house.  And if something is wrong it is my prerogative to make a deal with the owner to fix it, fix it myself, or not buy the place.  Why should it be any different for tenants? (not suggesting they should have to fix anything)

But do you know what really miffes me Mr. Conoboy?  It’s this notion you seem to have that tenants somehow need your help.  Just because someone is a tenant does not mean they are stupid or less educated or less able to make decisions for themselves.  That is the feel I got from reading your blog.  YOU are wiser and smarter and YOU will help the lowly tenant.  First and foremost you should ask all tenants in town if they want your help.

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Dick Conoboy

May 17, 2013

I rest my case.

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Dick Conoboy

May 30, 2013

This condo fire described inn your link has nothing to do with the advisability of building the University Ridge dormitory.

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Delaine Clizbe

May 30, 2013

But it has everything to do with:  Not all fires are caused by evil landlords.  Some in fact are caused by tenants themselves.

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Madeleine Baines

Jun 30, 2013

Thank you to Dick Conoboy for his diligence on the non viability of University Ridge dormitory construction in my neighborhood. He has framed a multitude of reasons that put the process in doubt, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the Puget neighborhood residents do not want this monstrous intrusion. It is the wrong thing in the wrong place. Legalese aside, the site is a steep wooded slope, with exceedingly poor drainage and wetlands adjacent. Any conservationist understands the importance of trees in such geo-physical conditions, their function as a sponge, binding the stability of the ground, and as an air purifier.

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