Coming soon (fall of 2014) to the Samish and Puget Neighborhoods may be a privately-owned student housing project of four buildings. It will have 164 units (allowed density is 176 units) and be designed to hold nearly 600 students, there will be parking for 433 automobiles. The complex, named University Ridge, would occupy about 11 acres of land in a now-wooded area between Puget St and Nevada St. just north of Consolidation Avenue. The multi-family zoned area is entirely within the Puget Neighborhood, however, the single viable entrance to the housing area is on Consolidation Ave. at the extreme southeast corner, and thus cars would enter and exit into Samish Neighborhood via Consolidation or 44th Street as most seek to travel to the WWU campus or the Lincoln Park-n-Ride. (See the site aerial photo above and proposed site layout below.)
According to their own documents, the developers, the Ambling University Development Group (AUDG), are providers of private student housing with more than 60 such developments nationwide. In the case of University Ridge, AUDG claims there is no connection between WWU and this development that would house not only WWU students but also those from WCC and BTC. This seems problematic given the distance from the campuses of WCC and BTC. Student status would be verified with the various schools. This notably upscale complex would contain both two and four bedroom furnished units, each with a common living area. Each bedroom, rented separately, would have its own bath. Likely monthly rents according to AUDG, would begin around $650 per bedroom for the 4 bedroom units and somewhat higher for the 2 bedroom units. The developers assert that on-site management would be provided by the Ambling Management Company that manages student housing in 22 states.
With respect to this development, several issues of importance to residents of both Puget and Samish Neighborhoods leap to mind immediately. They include, but are not limited to: water runoff, traffic and noise with likely resultant loss in property values. The acreage is a transition zone between purely single-family zoned neighborhoods to the east and south and the apartments/commercial development west and north at Lakeway Dr. and Lincoln St. Approval of this development would place very high density housing directly adjacent to single family homes with no intermediary buffer. Much more suited to the area is some transitional, affordable, owner-occupied housing in the form of cottage homes, duplexes, triplexes or town homes. These housing types are already defined in the Infill Tool Kit, a package especially designed for use in such transitional areas to help create the much sought after “urban village.” The city has been pushing for the use of the Tool Kit and this location would be an ideal fit under the rationale for creating the Tool Kit in the first place – urban villages. Indeed, the Puget Neighborhood Plan calls for working toward the creation of an urban village around the intersection of Lincoln St. and Lakeway Dr.
The water runoff matter may be very much underestimated by the developers. Already the runoff from impervious surfaces from the Pacific View development to the east causes sheets of water to cascade down Consolidation onto Puget St. and wash out the dirt and gravel at the road edges. Overflow from this water further descends onto the 11 acre parcel below causing drainage issues for the existing homes along the east side of Nevada St. Creating substantially more impervious surfaces between Puget St. and Nevada St. with the construction of large parking lots and buildings with extensive footprints does not make sense. The developers are counting on containing the runoff in a large vault to be built under one of the parking lots on the Nevada St. side of the complex.
The traffic produced by over 400 vehicles is likely to prove excessive for the existing street system. All cars must enter and exit the development from a single point on Consolidation Ave. where it meets 44th St. and Nevada St. These roads serve essentially a single family zoned neighborhood, with the exception of a short portion of Nevada St. near Consolidation Ave. They were not designed for such heavy use. The northern portion of Nevada St. that leads to Lakeway Dr. has no sidewalks and the paved roadway is very narrow, with either limited shoulders or, in some places, none at all. Exiting westbound onto Lakeway Dr. in heavy commuter traffic would necessitate the placement of a traffic signal at the very minimum. Additionally, there will be the constant thrumming of traffic as vehicles pour onto Consolidation in the morning and return through the same constricted entrance in the late afternoon and evening. [Note: Emergency access would be provided by an existing right-of-way onto Nevada St between two single family homes.] Given the varied nature of student schedules, traffic may be constant throughout the day. School is not a 9-5 job. It is a good bet that traffic will be considerable even into the late night on weekends and holidays. Quiet enjoyment will be out the window for the present homeowners.
Enforcing our noise ordinances is not a hallmark of the city of Bellingham. Unfortunately, this complex would become a noise maker of major proportions. Din from the city and Interstate 5 below already drifts up the hillside to Puget St. and beyond. 600 residents going about daily living, having parties, driving cars and playing outdoors (the developer wants to create common areas outdoors for grills and heated spas, etc.) will produce racket (loud conversations, shouting, singing, music, etc.) that cannot realistically be stopped at the property line. A parking overflow of cars along Nevada St. is sure to follow as non-residents visit by the hundreds on the weekends or in the evenings with the door banging, horn honking, shouting, littering and public urination that comes with many off-campus student gatherings. A good deal of this disturbance may well be in the streets around the complex, making problem behaviors out of the jurisdiction and control of the on-site managers. All they can do is call the police, as do residents now. Regrettably, law enforcement in Bellingham usually does not have sufficient personnel to respond effectively to such “low priority” calls.
The agent for the developer held a meeting on January 3rd with the Puget and Samish Neighborhood residents that was well attended. Homeowners along Nevada St., immediately to the west of the planned complex are particularly incensed about the enormous consequences of a project this size, literally looming over their houses and backyards. A recent Puget Neighborhood meeting, at which city planner Kathy Bell was in attendance, was quite animated as homeowners vented their concerns.
The developers are not without hurdles and have applied for a variance in order to increase the allowable height limit on the two buildings nearest Puget St. The code limit is 35 feet and the developers want a variance to allow buildings with a height of 58 feet. This 60% increase in building height will have view consequences for Puget St. homeowners. Surely the developers knew of this restriction when they acquired the property. Now, they want a rescue in the form of a variance from the city to the detriment of the neighborhood. Since the developers have already spent time and money on this project, presumably with a confidence that the variance will be granted, one detects a certain arrogance on their part that we frequently see in these cases. The attempt to rezone Padden Trails from single family to multi-family was one such example. Fortunately, those developers bet and lost, but only with enormous pushback from the Samish Neighborhood and several abutting neighborhoods. There will be a hearing on the University Ridge variance in front of the hearing examiner on March 20th. Unfortunately, the hearing is on the question of height only and NOT on the feasibility/desirability of the project as a whole. Without this variance, the developer faces a serious problem that limits the building height of the two structures nearest to Puget St. to the equivalent of three floors. The loss of two floors will substantially reduce the number of units for AUDG and will likely bring into question the project’s viability.
The developers are scheduled, as of now, to submit a formal application for the project on February 27th. The city then has 28 days to determine if the application is complete. After that period, a notice will go out asking for public comments. This comment period is 14 days. If substantial issues are raised during this time, they could trigger a Planning Commission meeting (likely with more public comment) on the project after the planning staff has submitted its recommendation. Planning Commission involvement or not, the city’s Planning Director is the final arbiter on issuing a permit to proceed with the construction although appeals can be made to the hearing examiner and eventually to the court system, if need be. Regrettably, we all know how costly these appeals can be for the individual neighborhoods that are supported only by volunteers and that do not have the financial means to pursue such litigation in face of well-financed developers with permanent staffs.
One can assume the developers have done their homework and there is a market for these units. $650 for a bedroom is not cheap. That translates to nearly $8,500 per year per bedroom, on top of the ballooning tuition of the last several years at WWU. This upscale complex is not likely to attract students now renting in the $300-$400 range where multiple renters pool their assets to be able to afford the monthly cost. You can now rent a home for about $1500 per month and share the cost. You could move into a 4 bedroom unit at University Ridge but the effective, combined monthly cost for that unit will be over $2500. Moreover, how many students will be willing to move into an apartment that is, according to the developers’ claim, to be tightly managed with on-site personnel 24/7? Doesn’t this sound a lot like the controlled dorms at WWU that most students avoid like the plague after their freshman year? Freedom calls.
We also need to ask ourselves a larger question about infill and the apparent incoherence when viewing some recent events. The recent attempt to stuff the Infill Tool Kit into the Padden Trails development at the extreme south edge of the city was defeated, as I alluded to above, only after a protracted series of city council meetings and a vociferous challenge by the Samish Neighborhood. The city’s planning staff and the Planning Commission provided few objections to this inappropriate “edgefill” project even in the face of its violation of the city’s own policies on infill (read the Comprehensive Plan). The move to create anything that looks like an urban village at Barkley was, in effect, trumped by the building of an enormous cinema with acres of parking that goes unused most of the time. This would have been an ideal location for the Infill Tool Kit, but instead we have created an auto-centric “entertainment” spot that will eventually attract investors to add strip-mall type buildings to justify and maximize the use of the now empty parking lot. At this time, we have an upscale University Ridge high density development proposal that necessitates a variance to be built. This plan does not respect the transitional nature of the site and prevents using the Infill Took Kit as it was intended to be used. The Tool Kit is an ideal solution and avoids all the folderol with respect to a variance. There is talk on the council of revisiting the code on the Infill Tool Kit for use in single family neighborhoods, as it has not been used by developers to date. I would first ask for a review of the coherence of the entire infill planning process and a study of the current and definite density of the neighborhoods before any additional densification is approved.
In the meantime, the city needs to put the kibosh on this super-dorm.