Arcata City Council Begins Deliberation on Controversial Student Housing Project

View of proposed Village housing project from Maple Lane. Photo: City of Arcata.
View of proposed Village housing project from Maple Lane. Photo: City of Arcata.

In last week’s meetings, the Arcata City Council began a public hearing regarding a controversial student housing project proposed for the Sunset Neighborhood on St. Louis Road. The project, including many recent updates to its plan, was introduced to the Council at their regular meeting on June 6, and the discussion was continued in a special meeting on June 7 to allow for public comments.

The Village housing project, proposed by Los Angeles based developing company AMCAL in 2016, would be a purpose-built student housing community for Humboldt State University students. In its most recent plan, The Village is set to house roughly 600 students – down from 800 in the original proposal – and would provide various academic and recreational amenities for its residents.

While the new plan allows for fewer residents, it also includes more parking spaces than was originally proposed – an attempt to reduce the impact of vehicles parking in the surrounding neighborhood. Some worry that this may actually increase traffic impacts by providing less incentive for Village residents to avoid car use, and think that Arcata needs to focus its efforts on maximizing the effectiveness of these types of infill development projects.

“We are disappointed that since the original proposal, the project has been scaled back to provide less housing and more car parking, which encourages more driving,” stated Colin Fiske, Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities. “This is a step in the wrong direction.”

The Village project is intended to help reduce the massive student housing crisis that the city has been facing for decades, but it has garnered significant opposition from Arcata residents and community members who feel that this project is not an appropriate fit for the local environment.

The special City Council meeting held on June 7 generated over an hour of public comments, largely in opposition of The Village project. Local community members, HSU professors, representatives from local organizations, and past and present HSU students spoke out at the meeting to voice their concerns and/or show support for the project.

Major concerns that were raised by public commenters included the “significant and unavoidable” traffic impacts identified in the project’s Environmental Impact Report, the environmental and social effects of such a large concentration of students on the small surrounding neighborhood, and the lack of transparency throughout this process between HSU officials, AMCAL developers, and the public.

Although they initially insisted that they were not working with the project developers, HSU has recently announced that they do in fact plan to manage The Village after it is built and to operate the facility similarly to their on-campus residence halls. This raises many new questions, as the CSU system is exempt from certain regulations that the project would have to comply with were it to remain privately owned and operated. Some of these questions and concerns that have come up include the loss of property taxes, uncertainties about whether HSU will be able to change the developer agreement, and whether they plan to increase the number of residents from what is currently being proposed.

Some public commenters at the June 7 meeting were concerned that the existing Environmental Impact Report does not accurately reflect the number of students that the university or the developer plans to house here, and many expressed wariness over the perceived dishonesty on behalf of these parties. Others even argued that this report does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (or CEQA) – a legal statute that requires agencies to identify and mitigate the environmental impacts of their actions.

Many community members have been outspoken in their opposition of this project for several months, if not years, and have followed the project throughout the lengthy process as it has undergone deliberation by local government bodies. It was first put before the city Planning Commission, but was passed on to the City Council after receiving a tie vote from the Commission in May.

“This is unfair to the community, and unfair to the citizens that you represent,” argued a representative from the Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing, a group that has continuously fought in opposition of this project.

Despite heavy opposition from community members, there are still many who are in favor of this project – primarily past and present HSU students, and advocates for homeless students. Many present at these meetings shared their own stories of being homeless while attending the university, and emphasized the importance of creating more housing in Arcata in order to help students succeed and retain their dignity.

“The fact is that so many of these students are eligible for housing, but there’s no houses. It’s really hard to digest,” stated student housing advocate Chante Catt, who works with local groups to fight issues of student homelessness and housing discrimination. “We need this project.”

While the City Council members themselves did have some preliminary thoughts on the project, they were not ready to make a decision at the June 7 meeting. Another meeting has been scheduled for June 19 at 4 p.m., where the councilmembers plan to first visit the potential site and then hold a meeting afterwards to continue this public hearing. HSU has also announced that they will be hosting a public meeting on June 18 at 5:30 p.m. to answer questions about their plans to manage the project, which will be held in the Great Hall on HSU’s campus.

It is clear that there are strong opinions about this housing project coming from each side, and members of the community will be closely watching the City Council for their final decision on whether or not to move forward with its development.