Flagstaff can't keep out high-density student housing complexes.
But under new rules being proposed by the city, it can try to make them more acceptable to the neighbors.
Two examples are a historic activity center designation and a change in policy to allow smaller city-owned pocket parks. They are the latest updates to the plan the city of Flagstaff is creating to address future high occupancy housing projects.
The updates arose after some of the new complexes achieved densities of more than 200 students per acre by renting by the bedroom and going up five stories.
High occupancy housing is defined as buildings with more than 75 people or 30 units per acre in dormitory or apartment-style units. For comparison, the Hub student housing complex will have 591 bedrooms on less than 2.5 acres.
Based on comments received during the public comment period, two activity centers in the downtown area have been proposed to change to “historic” activity centers instead of the existing “regional” or “neighborhood” designations, comprehensive planning manager Sara Dechter said in a presentation to the Flagstaff City Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission.
With the historic activity center designation, any rezoning would consider the downtown and character preservation goals and policies above the goals and policies of the city’s regional plan, Dechter said. The two historic activity centers would be in the downtown core and at Five Points on the Southside, which includes Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel.
The council and commission also supported changing the city’s policy about the size of parks it will accept from developers or private owners. The city’s policy has been to not accept parks smaller than two acres, because they are generally more expensive to maintain, Dechter said.
However, of the 27 activity centers in the city, only six have parks, Dechter said. Of those parks within activity centers, only one is greater than two acres in size, meaning the city accepted the other parks before the policy allowing only parks larger than two acres was enacted.
“The policy is keeping us from getting new parks,” Dechter said in her presentation.
Since the policy has been in place, if a developer wanted to give a parcel to the city that was smaller than two acres and that the developer did not plan on using in the project, the city’s automatic response was a “no.”
Councilman Jim McCarthy said cities like Seattle have some very small parks, which add value to the city and to the community, and he said Flagstaff should be open to smaller parks.
Commissioner Marie Jones said the plan also calls for the city and developers to no longer abandon alleyways, and requires alley connectivity. Jones said alleys can be made in ways that function like parks to give pedestrians a break from the built environment and encouraged the commission and the council to look at creative ways to use alleys as civic space.
In her presentation, Dechter showed a map of areas in the city that are already zoned to allow high occupancy housing, which was coded to show the area’s “readiness” to accommodate high occupancy housing. Factors that contributed to the score include access to public transportation, utility access, street connectivity and proximity to necessities like grocery stores, schools and hospitals.
Using that data, the city determined Downtown Flagstaff, the Southside and the Woodlands Village neighborhoods were determined to be the “most ready” in terms of accessibility. Sunnyside was determined to be “moderately ready” and areas near the mall scored “low” for readiness.
Dechter said throughout the public comment process, she received many comments about areas that are “not ready for high occupancy housing.” Many of the areas of concern she said, actually scored highly for readiness. However, Dechter said, even though the area might have the needed amenities to support such development, the area is not ready from a neighborhood perspective.
Measuring where the community wants to see high occupancy developments has been more difficult, Dechter said. In her data collection, the only common answer Dechter received from respondents was somewhere not near where each individual respondent lives.
Vice Mayor Jamie Whelan said seeing the map, and seeing that all the areas near Northern Arizona University were the ones deemed the most ready for high occupancy development showed the need for the city to invest in infrastructure in the areas east of the university, away from Downtown and the Southside.
“I think we need to lace up our boots and see where do we need these capital projects so we can open up that whole side of our community that’s ready for this kind of development,” Whelan said.
Mayor Coral Evans said the city cannot prevent a developer from using their rights to create high occupancy projects in a place that is already zoned for it. But she said the city could make it easier for developers to build in areas that would be more accepting of high occupancy housing.
“The city could make improvements in places where we do want growth to go,” she said. “They can still build in places we don’t want growth to go, they just have to pay for all of those improvements.”