The date of the Hearing Examiner's consideration of the University Ridge dormitory application has been officially announced for 11 September. The announcement can be found in the attachment below. You will note the announcement also indicates that the long-sought staff report will likely make its debut on 28 August, a mere two weeks prior to the hearing. This is an insufficient amount of time for the public to read, digest and respond to the planning staff's analysis of such an important, complicated and contentious proposal.
The fact that the Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) on the University Ridge dormitory project was accompanied by absolutely no explanatory data from the Planning Department with respect to the reasoning with which the decision was reached is deeply troubling. (Click here to read the DNS and accompanying documents.) This lack of supporting explanatory data virtually eliminates the ability of the public to comment knowledgeably on the SEPA determination or to counter any faulty internal analysis or inappropriate justifications by the Planning Department. The mere contention by the city that the commentary of the public was considered in arriving at this DNS is woefully insufficient and invites doubt and suspicion in the mind of the public as to the integrity of the action resulting in the DNS. This is an opaque process that has no credible or meaningful use in municipal government. I asked the mayor to stop this permitting process immediately, to call for a re-issuance of the DNS with complete staff comments, and to reschedule the 11 September hearing on the application to a later date to allow for adequate public review and comment. The appearance of the Hearing Examiner's consideration of the proposal and an email response from the mayor's assistant, Vanessa Blackburn, tell us that a delay is not going to happen. The juggernaut rolls on.
Nonetheless, let us take a closer look at the problems with the DNS that will be brought before the Hearing Examiner.
The enviornmental check list submitted by the developer is substantially insufficient in its entirety. The answers to specific environmental topics consist of several sentences, at most, and provide little in the way of justification, resembling answers to homework questions written by a high school student whose intent is to give the excercise a lick and a promise. Were the developer to respond to the needs of a paying client with such shoddy, broad and informationless statements, the developer would soon find himself without further business. Here are some rubrics under the requirements of SEPA’s environmental checklist that must be subject to more scrutiny.
EMISSIONS: The applicants claim that students have bus passes and, therefore, their use of public transportation will result in a less than normal amount of vehicular emissions for a project of this size and type is not supported by evidence other than conjecture (or as the applicant concedes, “expected”). The transportation study uses trip factors for multi-family apartment complexes that do not compare to a boarding/rooming house/dormitory of individual students. The number of automobiles per individual in a dormitory environment, with individuals who are not family members and who have differing habits of vehicle ownership, ought to be studied more closely for usage data. Similarly, the number of visitors in a highly social environment have not been taken into consideration, especially for periods such as evenings and weekends. Nor has the applicant considered the patterns of young adults whose schedules for work, class and recreation are often not synchronized with the single family residences that surround the project and tend to continue into the evening and early morning hours and through weekends. Patterns such as these will contribute to an overall emissions level that will remain higher than usual during weekend, evening and nighttime hours.
NOISE: The applicant only addresses noise with respect to vehicle use, an absurdly limited view given the experience of anyone who has lived in or near a dormitory. Again, the driving patterns, vehicle ownership percentages and social connections will add greatly to the amount of vehicular noise especially on weekends and in the evening/early morning hours. The applicant also failed to mention the availability of a “club house” with outdoor activity elements situated within a hundred feet or so of the single family residences and the noise these recreational elements will create. Nor has the applicant mentioned noise emanating from individual living units, many of which will have balconies directly facing surrounding homes where partying will spill to the outdoors and music from inside the unit will no longer be contained. Mitigating noise ordinances are of little consequence in a city where such ordinances are poorly enforced, if at all. The “promised” on-site management is likely to be of little consequence on the number and loudness of social gatherings, whose negative effects are often felt during the initial part of the event during which families with small children and the elderly have already been disturbed. Placing almost 600 students in an area with a density of over 100 individuals per acre is a recipe for constant disturbance to the neighborhood and is, in and of itself, a violation of the Growth Management Act’s expressed principle of maintaining the character of neighborhoods.
LAND USE: 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 specifically be 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.
HOUSING: The applicant's claim that the buildings have been situated on the site “to reduce any impact on the surrounding neighborhood” is not supported by evidence on their part. The mere fact that these buildings (used as dormitories) are in such close proximity to the single family homes on three sides of the acreage is a seriously deleterious impact in and of itself, irrespective of building orientation. A variety of less detrimental uses are available for this land, including the Infill Tool Kit, whose housing types are ideal for this transitional area. Moreover, the city bemoans the fact that the Infill Tool Kit is not being used, yet it appears to do nothing with respect to this acreage to encourage its use to provide affordable housing for homebuyers of modest means. Single family homes and low rise (2 or 3 story) apartments are also viable choices. In fact, it was the owners (the Hawleys) who built out much of Nevada St. and Marionberry Court with single family homes on their land zoned multi-family. Ironically, the Hawleys, who live far away on Lopez Island, are now responsible for the terrible consequences to the buyers of these homes if this dormitory project is approved. Furthermore, should this dormitory business venture fail, the neighborhood will be left with structures whose adaptable uses will be few, if any, since the dormitory configuration (especially the 4-bedroom units) is peculiar to the design presented and not amenable to conversion to condominiums or apartment units.
AESTHETICS: Again, the applicant understates the case. While the removal of trees along the west side of Puget St. may enhance the views of a few homes along the east side of that road, there is no reference by the applicant to the eventual direct line of sight between theses homes and the upper stories of the two dormitory buildings nearest to that street. Balconies and their sliding doors will allow for increased light and sound disturbances. See below the representations of the building heights provided by the applicant. Similarly, the homes along Nevada St. and Marionberry Ct. will be presented with several looming walls of buildings, including the balconies and sliding doors mentioned above, with the same result of light pollution and noise. The claim that a relatively slim buffer of trees between these homes and the dormitories will attenuate the disturbances is ludicrous on its face.
LIGHT AND GLARE: As mentioned above, the light and glare from the apartment units themselves is an issue that has not been mentioned or mitigated by the applicant. Similarly, effect of the light and glare from the headlights of hundreds of motor vehicles coming and going, especially during the hours of darkness, is not taken into consideration. The fact that there will be multiple tiers of parking lots, with both uphill and downhill movement of vehicles, will have a profound effect of headlight disturbance on the residents whose properties abut the dormitory development.
RECREATION: The so-called clubhouse, preposterously celebrated by the applicant only as a benefit, will be an added source of disturbance, particularly during evenings and weekends. The clubhouse, with its outdoor amenities, is planned for the southwest corner of the property which is particularly close to homes on Nevada St. and also to those on 44th and 43rd Streets. Noise from that recreational area will also affect homes on the north end of 46th St. at the southeast edge of the project. The trail along the Consolidation Ave right-of-way, which the applicant proposes, is also problematic in that it encourages dormitory residents to go up the hill into another quiet single family neighborhood on 46th and 47th Streets. The trail will eventually end at a point along the upper part of Puget St. (an arterial) where there is no sidewalk and where cars regularly exceed the 25mph speed limit. The gravel-covered shoulder areas that exist are narrow and often washed out by sheets of rainwater that cascade down Puget from Consolidation Ave. The city regularly has to replace the gravel in the deep furrows dug by the water at the edge of the pavement. Unfortunately, the Planning Department has already granted a dispensation to the applicant for normally required road improvements along Puget St. This dispensation should have been the subject of a variance. Pedestrian safety is at issue here. The applicant also fails to consider the effect of the attraction of visitors/guests to the much vaunted clubhouse amenity and the manifest lack of planned parking for events at the facility. With only 420 parking spaces for 576 residents and several dozen employees, the parking lots soon run out of room. Since the clubhouse is located next to the entrance to the dormitory development, visitors with cars will find the point of least resistance and spill over to Nevada St., Consolidation Ave. and 44th St.
Unfortunately, the process here is a gaping maw, a black hole, into which the public pours its commentary and from which nothing emanates, except at the last minute, a week or two before the hearing when a staff report will suddenly materialize. The following note is typical of responses I get from the residents of Puget and Samish neighborhoods. “I personally don't even know what [all] this means other than it sounds like we are getting the runaround once again. … I only know what works in a common sense world and it seems like these guys don't have any. I really don't understand why we the people seem to be the adversary. Why are we getting no help, and no responses? I've written several letters and have yet to receive a response of any kind.” This is what the city government looks like from the trenches. And I use the word “trenches” with all that it connotes.
What has been forgotten about in all this is the citizenry who will have to live with this preposterously inappropriate and life-changing development. This is a question about the very quality of their lives and the preservation of their investments in their homes. And as is often the case, in the final analysis and with the most telling irony, nobody involved with this project from the city to the owner to the developers lives near this proposed monstrosity.
There is yet another opportunity to write and protest to the Planning Department (firstname.lastname@example.org), to the Mayor (email@example.com) and to the City Counci (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to comment on this specific project prior to the hearing on 11 September. Do so immediately as this process is broken for every resident of Bellingham. Your neighborhood could be next.