Is it time to rethink the rejection of regional "sprawl" in a city that might have already reached its sustainable carrying capacity?
That’s one question that comes to mind as the draft High-Occupancy Housing Specific Plan for Flagstaff comes up for its first public workshops this week.
The plan, authored by Sara Dechter, the city of Flagstaff’s comprehensive planning manager, is a clear and comprehensive look at how high-density development of more than 100 bedrooms per acre could work in a city already chafing under growing traffic congestion and overbuilding in residential neighborhoods. The city, including NAU, is going to grow whether it likes it or not, Dechter points out; creating more mixed-use, high-density “activity” centers – including student housing – will give people a chance to live, work and shop in a more compact area and thus reduce private vehicle trips.
The plan, however, seems to be attempting to load five pounds of potatoes into a one-pound sack. Yes, it conforms to the goals and maps laid out in the regional plan. But that, too, was an aspirational document that recommended mixed-use, infill projects that would conform to neighborhood building and land use patterns aided by multi-modal transit that would get people out of their cars.
MIXED USE INFILL?
Instead, the enrollment surge at NAU, combined with high housing costs in the city, has led mainly to massive rent-by-the-bedroom housing complexes aimed primarily at students, not the local working families. The “mixed uses” turn out to be restaurants and bike repair shops. The HOH report, rather than slowing down the growth of such projects, endorses more by upgrading five medium-density “neighborhood” activity centers in the city land use plan to high-density “regional” ones.
In defense of the upgrades, Dechter says all five – South Milton, Juniper Point, Little America, Ponderosa Parkway and Fourth Street at Butler – are close to I-40 and thus have easier cross-town access. Also, these areas are underpopulated – the more residents, the more businesses and services that will move in, with enough density to support mass transit. And even though NAU houses close to 10,000 students on campus, that leaves 12,000 to find housing with one of the highest affordability gaps (rents vs. income) in the country. Say what you will about how the Hub looks, it will provide affordable rents of about $600 to $700 a month per bedroom.
On paper, this might work, especially in big cities that have enough land and people to support numerous self-contained housing and job centers in a ring around the downtown. But in reality, most of the HOH projects along the freeway would still see residents come back into town for school and work along South Milton, Lone Tree, Butler and East Route 66. What is now a 15-minute errand for existing residents in a city of 70,000 could become 30 minutes in a city of 100,000.
BUSES AREN'T LIGHT RAIL
And transit in Flagstaff is not a light-rail line with its own dedicated right of way that avoids traffic jams. It is the Mountain Line bus system that must travel the same backed-up roads as other drivers. Currently, passengers ride it for about 6,000 trips a day – half of those by NAU students. By comparison, there are more than 300,000 trips by private vehicle each day in Flagstaff. Are citizens ready to pay what it could cost to widen corridors with dedicated busways and HOV lanes and create truly “rapid” transit?
Dechter notes that some college towns like Boulder, Colo., and Bozeman, Mont., have used builder incentives to get HOH residents out of their cars and onto bikes or buses. One technique is to set maximum, not minimum, on-site parking spaces for a project, thus discouraging private vehicle ownership.
The proof will be in the pudding. When the Hub and its 591 bedrooms open next year, fewer than half of the bedrooms will be assigned a parking space in the on-site garage. Planners contend the rest of the students will walk or bike. Southside neighbors instead fear they will park their cars on nearby streets and alleys – and in empty store lots at night when the winter parking ban takes effect.
FINALLY COUNTING BEDROOMS
There’s also the question of where does the HOH district end and the neighborhood begin, and at what scale? Dechter notes that Flagstaff counts density by the apartment and not by bedroom, and she recommends a change. But the standard HOH could still have more than 100 bedrooms per acre next to a block with fewer than 30 – and the draft HOH plan is recommending more of them. (The Hub, for comparison, will have 240 beds per acre.)
We don’t doubt that there are cities, big and less big, that have made the transition from low- and medium-density housing to mixed-use, high-density activity nodes with minimal ultimate impact on the quality of life for existing residents. But without transit upgrades and road expansion, the transition would likely be a painful one – allowing higher density to build up congestion until finally drivers are forced into buses that must run much more frequently and on more routes.
The latter would be a major upgrade for Flagstaff – currently only the West Flagstaff student route to and from NAU operates on a headway of less than 10 minutes between buses. And there are entire neighborhoods, such as University Heights, Ponderosa Trails and most of Continental/Country Club, that have no bus service at all. Flagstaff voters recently approved extending the sales tax supporting Mountain Line. The HOH plan is silent on how much more it would cost to get enough people out of their cars so that higher-density housing doesn’t simply lead to gridlock.
EXPAND GROWTH BOUNDARY
So is traditional sprawl – big box shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions miles from town – the only answer? We hope not. But as residents get their first look this week at the HOH plan, we’d suggest they consider the larger question of Flagstaff’s ultimate carrying capacity and whether it’s time to look at expanding the region’s development boundary to beyond the city limits sooner rather than later. Offer the developers of massive student housing complexes rezoning and road extensions they can’t refuse, and perhaps they won’t put up projects in corridors already clogged and getting worse. Is the city really fixing the problem of growing congestion and overbuilding with its HOH expansion plan – or just enabling it?