The Flagstaff City Council is rarely in the position that it’s in now as it considers the proposed Mill Town student housing project again on Tuesday.
For many of the recently built large projects and the one currently under construction on West Route 66, the property owners had the appropriate zoning designation and therefore didn’t have to ask Council for a rezoning. The massive Mill Town student housing project is different because the developer, Vintage Partners, must seek a rezoning, which is a discretionary decision, from the Council.
Council has already taken the first step toward approving the rezoning by a 5-2 vote. The second, and possibly final, step is scheduled for April 17, at the 6 p.m. City Council meeting.
Council doesn’t have to approve the request next Tuesday. Instead, it can work with Vintage to re-envision the project to be consistent with Flagstaff’s values, while advancing some of its important goals.
One of the most disappointing parts of this public-private partnership is that Vintage wasn’t given parameters for acceptable projects before it submitted its site plans. However, the developer had many opportunities over the years to listen to the distaste for massive, monolithic student housing structures expressed by many, including during the conversations about the High Occupancy Housing Plan, but chose not to design a project that reflected this important perspective.
The Mill Town housing project has been presented as a mixed-use project, but it includes two, physically separate uses — residential and commercial -- with the commercial frontage on only one of three streets encompassing the project. The Regional Plan, the vision for future development as approved by the voters, defines commercial cores as active public realms with housing above and behind commercial uses, but not exclusively behind, which is what this project offers. Furthermore, we don’t even have a specific plan for the Milton corridor, yet we are considering a rezoning request for a project that will define the entire corridor.
Vintage stated that the reason for the monolithic nature of the project is the need to wrap the building around the required parking. Since this is a student housing project, nothing prevented Vintage from partnering with NAU to incorporate an off-site, surface parking lot on the NAU campus that could reduce the number of parking spots required on the project site. The project could then include some affordable housing and multiple buildings with smaller footprints.
Finally, the City knows from experience that a new student housing complex like Mill Town will generate twice as many emergency calls to fire and police as those from other types of development, including multi-family housing. During the initial Council discussion, this issue was raised, but at this point Vintage hasn’t yet offered any additional funding to address the disproportional impact of Mill Town on the Flagstaff taxpayers, especially during the first few years before the increase in property tax revenues to the city will be available to fund the increase in demand for police and fire services.
Council can still hit the pause button and negotiate a better development on this site. With all of the infrastructure, nearby grocery stores, and public transit, this would be a great location for a project for different populations that also includes affordable housing.
We don’t believe Council should rezone property for a massive luxury student housing project.
If, however, Council does finalize the rezoning, many will be surprised by the massive scale, dominance and footprint of the building. We don’t think Vintage’s idea for this site works for Flagstaff — there are other ways to achieve density on this site. On Tuesday evening, the Flagstaff City Council will have one more chance to rethink the project.