It seems like just yesterday that The Grove opened its doors, ushering in a new and problematic era in student-oriented housing in Flagstaff.
Actually, it was August 2012, and nearly four years later the city is still wrestling with how to accommodate what amount to high-rise student dormitories without the hall proctors.
This summer, the latest project, dubbed The Hub, will come not before the City Council but an obscure panel called the Board of Adjustments for a ruling that will almost surely be appealed in court.
Meanwhile, despite four years of neighborhood turmoil and late-night council meetings, the city staff is only now getting around to a public process to set specific high-occupancy standards and conditions in the zoning code. First there will be community cafes, then an open house, a focus group, collaborative workshops and public review before a draft plan arrives at the P&Z and finally the City Council.
WILL COUNCIL AGREE?
Let no one say Flagstaff is short on participation and deliberation. But if the process is anything like the four years it took for a citizens panel to come up with a draft regional plan, there is no guarantee that the elected council will buy into it. And then where will we be?
Mind you, we are not faulting city staff for the delay or the lengthy rule-making process – it’s the council that has had this issue on their plate since The Grove first started making headlines four years ago for out-of-control parties with underage drinking and noise that reverberated throughout downtown and beyond. So while staff focused on that problem – the city and NAU are only now getting around to hiring a joint town-gown housing and student life liaison -- a project called The Standard was proposing to evict an entire trailer park. By the time that project was withdrawn, then resubmitted without the evictions, The Hub and its 99 units per acre rising five stories above Southside was making its way through the planning and zoning process. (The existing density, by comparison, is about 8 units an acre.)
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Along the way, two student-oriented projects in Woodlands Village received permits and are now under construction without any fuss. The difference is location, location, location – they are on lots in an undeveloped, outlying area of the city that long ago were zoned for precisely what is being built.
But the closer a massive, high-density project gets to a settled neighborhood of one- and two- story houses and businesses, the more conflicts will occur. The regional plan attempted to have it all ways:
--Policy CC.3.1: Encourage neighborhood design to be respectful of traditional development patterns and enhance the overall community image.
--Policy LU.5.5: Plan for and promote compact commercial development at activity centers with mixed uses, allowing for efficient multi-modal transit options and infrastructure.
Policy NH.2.3: Continue the tradition of multi-story, multi-use buildings to maintain and increase a stable, mixed-income residential population when planning new structures in the downtown and Southside.
The city planning staff, confronted with a developer in Core Campus that has insisted on maximum buildout of its Southside parcel, has had to make a choice. And to justify what it concedes will be a massive, new “form” in the neighborhood, it has taken what it calls a “holistic” approach. Overall, it says, the regional plan “supports targeted infill and redevelopment in compact urban form” and the activity centers in the plan (where the Hub will be located) have “the highest concentration of density/Intensity and greatest potential for redevelopment.” Staff concedes the Hub is out of character with existing development but won’t be as NAU enrollment continues to grow and puts pressure on Southside to add more housing at higher densities.
The neighbors and others with an interest in Southside disagree, so next month’s Board of Adjustment hearing and subsequent court hearing will be more about intent and interpretation than building height or the number of parking spaces per unit. It’s too bad an unelected body and then a judge will be deciding what could have been specified in both the regional plan and the land use development code. Perhaps that’s what staff is hoping will come out of the public scoping process in time for the next high-occupancy project application. But if that isn’t what the City Council really wants, we’d hope the incumbents and the candidates speak up now before the process gets too far along.