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With neighbors of site in opposition, Flagstaff City Council grapples with proposed Aura apartments decision
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With neighbors of site in opposition, Flagstaff City Council grapples with proposed Aura apartments decision

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Aura Flagstaff project

Site plans for the proposed Aura Flagstaff project.

The Flagstaff City Council has once again found itself considering a development offering Flagstaff new housing units opposed by neighbors.

This week, Council heard from Texas-based developer Trinsic, which has requested a zoning change for a new apartment complex on High Country Trail, just west of Lake Mary Road.

But the project may have the cards stacked against it after having been denied by the city before and now facing a large number of nearby Ponderosa Trails residents in opposition to the development.

The area currently has the estate residential zone. That zone would allow for spread-out single-family homes, but Trinsic is asking the city to change the area to a medium-density residential zone to accommodate the proposed apartments.

Developers with Trinsic say the project is very different from the proposal the city denied previously and will be in line with the city’s sustainability goals. They also say Aura will provide affordable and market-rate units to a city that declared a housing emergency just last year.

And to some on city council, including Vice Mayor Becky Daggett and Councilmember Adam Shimoni, that prospect is a real opportunity.

“We have a climate emergency in place and a housing emergency in place. Rarely can we [address] both of those emergencies in one agenda item and here we are with an opportunity to do just that,” Shimoni said.

But on Tuesday, Council postponed making any decision on the requested zoning change as several councilmembers sought to negotiate further with Trinsic.

The project, dubbed Aura Flagstaff, would bring eight total two- and three-story buildings to an 11-acre section of property. Those buildings would contain 160 apartments.

The property is bisected by both High Country Trail and a power line.

Of those units, 112 would be one bedroom/one bathroom, and another 48 units would be two bed/two bath.

The number of apartments is technically more units than city code would normally allow on the property, but the developer is opting into the city’s affordable housing program and making the project more sustainable, both of which grant bonus units.

The developer is setting aside 20% of the apartments to be designated as affordable. That percentage is somewhat noteworthy; more often than not, developers that request a zoning change and opt into the city’s affordable housing program will designate 10% of the units as affordable.

In this case, that 20% translates to 20 apartments designated as affordable.

Density in the hot seat

But that density has also become a one of many sticking points for some nearby residents and members of Council.

Because High Country Trail and the power lines bisect the property, the proposed buildings are clustered at the south side of the land. With all the buildings on only a handful of the 11 total acres, residents insist the real density of the project is much higher than it appears on paper.

Ponderosa Trails resident Phil Goldblatt is one of those opposing the project and says that in his view, the area is much better suited to single-family homes or townhomes, but not apartments. And Goldblatt said some residents are worried the project will lower their property values.

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“The impact of this development is still 160 units on nine acres of the south side of the parcel,” Goldblatt told the Arizona Daily Sun. “Nobody is against construction but what we're against is the final product. It's just inappropriate for this particular neighborhood. And in different neighborhoods, it might be fine in Flagstaff.”

Despite those concerns, City Planning Manager Alaxandra Pucciarelli said the project would fit in the medium residential zone, adding that the code does not require an even distribution of buildings throughout a site.

Another issue of concern to some on Council is that most of the trees being preserved are to the north of High Country Trail and are not accessible by the public because of a fence. Trinsic said the current landowner who has a home to the north wants that area to remain private.

In particular, Councilmembers Jim McCarthy and Austin Aslan said they were uncomfortable with that aspect of the project. Both also voiced concerns over the density.

“I am very concerned with how this rezone wreaks havoc on a reasonable person’s sense of fairness, and this is why [the planning and zoning commission] recommended denial, and it’s why I feel I need to as well,” Aslan said.

McCarthy suggested one solution could be that the forested section of the property be excluded from the project. That would also mean the total number of allowed units would be reduced, creating a less dense development.

The house, built in 1935, was remodeled in 1958 to meet the changing needs of the occupants.

Officials with Trinsic said it could be possible to open a portion of the northern forested area to the public but reducing the number of units any further would kill the development.

Weighing values

In opposing the project, Goldblatt also referenced an email survey of Ponderosa Trails residents that showed that more than 80% of them opposed the development.

More than 500 residents have also signed a change.org petition asking for the city to deny the zoning change.

And Goldblatt said residents are fighting to preserve the character of the community and neighborhood, something they see the project as threatening.

“I think Council should stand with the people who are already here, who make up the basis for society in Flagstaff, because that's the way our system of government is supposed to operate,” Goldblatt said.

Some members of the public did voice support for the project during the meeting and said often, the voices of those who benefit from new housing are under-represented during Council meetings.

And that sentiment was echoed by Daggett.

“I think it’s important for us to remember we represent all the residents of Flagstaff, including those who are struggling to find stable housing,” Daggett said.

Sustainability and public amenities

Trinsic is also offering to build out a section of the Flagstaff Urban Trail in the area, connecting two existing sections of the trail, and a public pickleball court.

The eight apartments would also be 100% electric as opposed to relying on natural gas, and have recycling services.

The city’s climate action plan calls for the widespread electrification of new and existing buildings across the city as a way to transition from the use of natural gas.

Also included would be three electric vehicle charging stations and capacity for several additional charging stations in the future as well as bicycle storage areas.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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