Two weeks ago, the city made the right call by forgoing a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND, or Neg Dec) for the proposed Sterling Apartments on Fifth Street, and going with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). While this will slow down the process, it will also make it far less likely that the project would be tied up in litigation like the Hotel Conference Center.
While the city may or may not have a legally defensible case in the Hotel Conference Center’s MND, from a political standpoint, it was a mistake that will result in its own delays.
It was clear, looking at the traffic analysis, that, while it could be argued that the apartments themselves might have minimal impact on the projected increased traffic and congestion at the Pole Line and Fifth Street intersection, there was enough projected increase that it warranted a full study.
Sterling Apartments is a proposed 244-unit development on Fifth Street at the site of the former FamiliesFirst treatment facility that was the subject of a major investigation and was permanently closed as of September 2013.
This project seeks to demolish the existing buildings on just over five acres, that would be developed into a four- and five-story, 203-unit student housing project, along with a four-story, 41-unit affordable housing project on the remaining .84 acres of the site.
The student site would include 727 beds, along with 545 parking spaces.
Last week the Vanguard met with one of the partners for the development company Dinerstein. In addition, we have received numerous letters and op-eds on the project from local residents.
The question is really whether there is a way forward that might be mutually agreeable. For those who argue that the proposed site is the wrong location, there is much to argue against that point.
For one thing, the city is suffering from a rental housing crisis. Not only is the current vacancy rate less than 0.2 percent, but the university is proposing expanding its enrollment once again. While many have argued, with a good deal of validity, that the university needs to take on a greater percentage of its housing, that will be a long and slow process and it is not clear that the city can really create the leverage or agreement it needs.
The Sterling site has a lot to offer in this respect. It is a six-acre site that is currently fallen into disuse and certainly underutilized. So there is availability of land. It is located near other apartments. There are very few single family residences in the immediate area. And the immediate land owners and businesses are supportive of the project for the most part.
The city lacks a lot of larger infill sites that can support sizable student housing in the current city. Currently Nishi has a proposed 1500 beds or so. Lincoln 40 is another possibility. But unless the voters are willing to approve Measure R projects for student housing, the Sterling site is one of the few available sites that could accommodate a reasonable amount of beds.
Here are some points to consider:
First, the Rancho Yolo residents who are basically across the street from the proposed site on Fifth Street are understandably concerned about traffic impacts.
Currently, as indicated above, the site calls for 727 beds with 545 parking spaces. Talking with the developers, it seems they would be willing to consider many fewer parking spaces. There are really not any options for student renters to park nearby. Some have suggested the post office, but there are very limited spaces there and they are at such a premium, anyone parking there would be quickly towed.
The developer seems willing to incentivize residents without cars with possible reductions in rent and access to ZipCars for the few times they will need cars, and the site is near a good bus line and an improved bike route.
Instead of 545 spaces, they seemed willing to cut that number by 50 percent, and possibly to as low as 200 spaces.
Second, there are naturally concerns about sightlines. We have seen with the Trackside Development the ability of the developers to model for sight impacts. However, the developer believes that the height of the walls at Rancho Yolo and the distance from the current mobile home park renders that issue null and void.
Certainly, the developer could model that to assuage the existing residents of the minimal impacts there.
Third, there seems to be legitimate concern that the Rancho Yolo tenants have no legal claim to the land at Rancho Yolo.
There are a few points to be raised here. First, I think that is a realistic concern, but it really is not impacted by whether Sterling is developed or not. Rancho Yolo utilizes a large footprint and, as long as the tenants are not the land owners, they are somewhat vulnerable.
However, state law makes it a difficult and lengthy process to convert mobile homes to other uses, which gives the tenants time and the potential to access resources in response.
Dinerstein does not have interest in purchasing that land, but seems willing to help the tenants get in a more secure position.
Again, the vulnerability of Rancho Yolo is there, but it is really not impacted by what happens with Sterling.
Going forward, are there other concerns that either Rancho Yolo residents or general city residents have about the project?
Does reducing the number of vehicles which can park there, incentivizing residents who would either use the bus or bike to get to campus, alleviate some concerns about traffic impacts?
Would a modeling exercise alleviate concerns about the potential of visual blight?
As this process moves forward, it seems helpful to put issues on the table. It may be that, for some people, no project is the only acceptable outcome. That is understandable and something that will need to be taken into consideration.
—David M. Greenwald reporting