Arcata City

Staff Report
Direction Given
Dec 19, 2017 6:00 PM

Consider the Draft Environmental Impact Report and a Recommendation to the City Council for Approval of the Required Permits and Development Agreement Terms for the Village Student Housing Project at 2715-2920 St. Louis Rd.; File No. 156-179-GPA-ZA-PM-DR-PD-DA-GPC


Department:Community DevelopmentSponsors:


On March 8, 2016, AMCAL Equities, LLC, submitted a complete application for the development of a 240 unit (800 bed) purpose-built student housing project to be located at the former Craftsman’s Mall property on St. Louis Road. The project consists of four 4-story buildings of modern design with a variety of recreational and academic amenities for its student residents. The project requires a General Plan and Zoning Map amendment to change the current designations of Industrial Limited (IL) and Residential Low Density (RL) to Residential High Density (RH) and to add a Planned Development (:PD) combining zone. It also requires a Design Review Permit, merger of the seven underlying parcels, General Plan Conformance review for the vacation/abandonment of a portion of St. Louis Road for parking and trail development purposes and a Development Agreement. The Planning Commission will consider all aspects of the project, including the environmental impact, the permit approvals, and the concessions and amenities needed to approve the project, and make a recommendation to the City Council.

Discussion/Fiscal Impact

This staff report is intended to provide additional information that was requested by the Planning Commission at its December 12, 2017, meeting. This report should build on previous discussions and information provided in the staff reports for the November 28th, November 30th, December 5th, and December 12th meetings. Of specific interest were the following items:

  1. A brief discussion on Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) versus Level of Service (LOS) and which methodology would be most appropriate given pending CEQA updates;
  2. A discussion on the difference between the Section I. c) Aesthetics finding in the DEIR and the Design Review Permit “findings” in the Land Use Code;
  3. More information on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Section VII. of the CEQA checklist and some of the additional features that the applicant is now proposing to bring the project closer to net-zero;
  4. A discussion on Section X. Land Use Planning and how the finding of consistency with the general plan can be made when the zoning and general plan are proposed to be changed;
  5. Population and the definition of “growth inducing” as it relates to Section XIII. a) of the CEQA checklist; and
  6. Final comments on the ability of the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) to accommodate this project and the others that are moving through the entitlement process.


VMT vs. LOS Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) is a relatively new methodology that is proposed to be implemented through the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 743 and will encourage infill development and, subsequently, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). While the City does not currently utilize VMT for traffic analysis in CEQA, the City's General Plan policies strongly encourage smart growth/in-fill development, which is a basis for preferring VMT over LOS. The City had a VMT analysis (Attachment A) prepared in concert to the Central Arcata Areawide Traffic Impact Study (Appendix L of the DEIR) because staff recognizes that this may be a direction that the City will need to go in the near term. The VMT analysis resulted in a finding of "No Impact" to any of the study intersections given the nature of the project (student housing) and its proximity to the "trip generator" (HSU). The VMT approach is intended for use in more metropolitan areas where capacity on the roadways is near or already exceeding limits and is also a tool to encourage mode-shift away from the single-occupancy vehicle and towards other means of transportation. This would be an effective tool, potentially, for the City to undertake as a formal development policy since we do not currently have an adopted standard for acceptable delay; we tend to accept D or E vehicular LOS at intersections and on roadways as a way to encourage non-motorized travel. The City also has General Plan Policy T-1a stating that in order to provide a realistic and cost-effective balance between travel modes, the City shall emphasize investment in alternative modes (bikeways, etc.) as a priority over increasing vehicular capacities of streets.

 As explained by Bob Brown, AICP, the City's EIR consultant, the use of VMT as a replacement to LOS in CEQA documents is still in rulemaking at the legislative level and its future use is expected to be at the discretion of the local jurisdiction. If all goes accordingly, the revised CEQA Guidelines will be approved by September 2018 and there will be a discretionary period until January 2020 when lead agencies can determine the appropriate method of transportation analysis.

Considerations for the Planning Commission:

  1. Recommend to the Council that it use VMT analysis for the Village (and other projects) which would lead to “No Significant Impact” in terms of the EIR and, thus, no need for a Statement of Overriding Conditions. If this is the recommendation of the Commission, the City would not be able to exact improvement fees from the developer as part of the EIR. A negotiated fee could be added to the Development Agreement as a separate item, if the developer was amenable; or
  2. Continue with the standard LOS methodology, accept that there will be an unmitigatable impact at study intersections and recommend to the Council that it adopt overriding considerations accepting a temporary peak LOS of F at the LK Wood/Sunset intersection in exchange for needed housing. This intersection already experiences a peak hour LOS of E.

Aesthetics CEQA requires a finding as to whether or not a project will substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings. In order to make this finding, the Commission shall consider the whole action involved, including off-site as well as on-site, cumulative as well as project-level, indirect as well as direct, and construction as well as operational impacts. The Commission should weigh the existing site conditions as the baseline. In this case, the baseline is a fairly blighted industrial site with numerous land use and building code long-standing violations and large, remnant metal industrial warehouses that are in disrepair. Staff can provide additional information on this during oral presentation if desired. Also part of the baseline is the “surroundings”. This goes to the discussion of neighborhood and to what neighborhood does this property belong? The Director provided some insight on this topic at the December 12th meeting. Is this property’s surroundings the freeway and the other industrial properties to the north or does it encompass the residential neighborhoods to the west, south and northwest?

This property is separated geographically from the Stromberg neighborhood by a significant topographic feature just like Stromberg is separated from the Sunset neighborhood.

Consideration for the Commission:

  1. Make a determination as to whether or not the construction of a high-density residential development will be a substantial degradation of the immediate site (the Craftsman’s Mall) or its surroundings.

The Design Review Permit (DRP) requires only that the project be compatible with the neighborhood. A full discussion can be found in the Findings (Pg. 51 of the 11/28/17 Planning Commission Packet). The discussion of “neighborhood” relates also to the CEQA discussion above and is still unresolved. Staff has suggested in previous staff reports that a larger view of the area might find that a high-density residential use is more compatible with the existing lower density residential uses surrounding the site than the existing industrial use is. If this project moves forward, the only industrial use remaining would be Mad River Sawmills to the north. The zoning map indicates that there is already medium- and high-density residential development nearby (Attachment I of 11/28/17 Packet). This is a transitional area.

Consideration for the Commission:

  1. Make a recommendation to the Council about what it’s determined the “neighborhood” to be in direct relation to this DRP requirements and whether or not a compatibility finding can be made. This will include a review of all of the design features typically associated with a DRP such as parking layout, landscaping, exterior materials and finishes and overall architectural features and design.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions At the December 12th meeting, the EIR consultant explained how the use of the California Emissions Estimator Model (CalEEMod) resulted in a finding that the project would not generate greenhouse gas emissions, either directly or indirectly, that may have a significant impact on the environment. Although not required, the developer team has indicated that it has heard the desires of the community about exceeding the LEED Silver standard and are considering adding solar panels into the project design and are working with Redwood Energy toward a net-zero development with additional sustainability features. This will also help the City reach its 2010 GHG levels as set by its Community Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan (2006).

Please refer to Section 2.8 (Page 2.8-1) of the DEIR for more information.

There was some discussion about GHG being considered in relation to Section XVI. Transportation/Traffic, but this section does not include findings directly related to GHG emissions.

Land Use and Planning Because the project proposes to change the general plan designation, a question arose about Section X. b) and whether or not the project would conflict with any applicable land use plan, policy, or regulation of an agency with jurisdiction over the project (including, but not limited to the general plan, specific plan, local coastal program, or zoning ordinance) adopted for the purpose of avoiding or mitigating an environmental effect. Through the general plan (and zoning map) amendment process, a finding must be made that the project will be consistent with the new designations. Once the designations are changed to Residential High Density (RH), the multi-family residential project will be consistent. If the project did not included these amendments, it would not be consistent as the current designations are Industrial Limited (IL) and Residential Low-Density (RL).

As the Director explained, the different policies and regulations within the general plan and zoning ordinance shall be internally consistent. In other words, consistent with each other. This means that there cannot be policies or goals are standards with these documents that are in conflict with each other. The project does request an exception to the 35’ height limit which is addressed through the Planned Development Permit.

Please refer to Finding 2.1.2 (Page 2.1-7) of the DEIR for additional explanation.

Population Section XIII. a) of the CEQA checklist requires that the review authority determine whether a project will induce substantial population growth in an area, either directly (for example, by proposing new homes and businesses) or indirectly (for example, through extension of roads or other infrastructure). The DEIR, Finding 2.2.1. (Page 2.2-6) goes into a detailed discussion on this item. The CEQA Guidelines require that an EIR evaluate the growth inducing impacts of a proposed action (Section 15126.2(d)). A growth-inducing impact is defined by CEQA as: The ways in which the proposed project could foster economic or population growth, or the construction of additional housing, either directly or indirectly, in the surrounding environment. Included in this are projects which would remove obstacles to population growth (a major expansion of a waste water treatment plant might, for example, allow for more construction in service areas). Increases in the population may tax existing community service facilities, requiring construction of new facilities that could cause significant environmental effects. The EIR must also discuss the characteristic of some projects which may encourage and facilitate other activities that could significantly affect the environment, either individually or cumulatively. It must not be assumed that growth in any area is necessarily beneficial, detrimental, or of little significance to the environment.

Growth inducing projects typically refer to those that allow for or accommodate an influx of population not already in the area. In this case, the project proposes to house current HSU students. The development of the Village project will not induce enrollment to increase at HSU. Another example could be the development of a new road with all utilities stubbed out to the edge of a large property that’s planned and zoned for some type of development. The act of providing those improvements could induce the development of that currently vacant site.

Wastewater The Environmental Services Director described the current status of the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) and the upgrade that the City is undertaking separately from this or any of the development projects currently under review. This discussion relates to XVIII. a), b), and e) on the checklist and is described in further detail in Section 2.11 of the DEIR (findings begin on Page 2.11-14). The City’s WWTP Memo (Appendix K of the DEIR) describes how the existing WWTP can effectively treat the demands of the Village and the other projects, but that it must be upgraded to address future needs, the changing regulatory environment and to address its “end-of-design-life” issues including decreased function.

The DEIR is slightly unclear in its assertion that the wastewater treatment facilities must be improved to meet the demand of both current and future population. The proposed project, which includes upzoning the project site to Residential High Density (RH), will be required to pay standard sewer capital connection fees for residential development, as well as a fair share cash allocation negotiated through a Development Agreement with the City, which will be used to fund some of the proposed improvements to the City’s wastewater treatment system.

To be clear, the Village project is not creating a significant impact to the WWTP and is not paying into a mitigation fund for improvements there. It will, however, through the Development Agreement, contribute $75,000 toward the cost of preparing the studies and environmental documents needed to assist the City in its project already underway.


Meeting History

Nov 28, 2017 6:00 PM Video Planning Commission Regular Meeting

Citing a potential conflict of interest, Chair Flint recused himself from this item and left the room (6:35 PM). Vice Chair Mayer assumed the duties of the Chair and opened the public hearing with a presentation from staff. Director Loya delivered an overview on the process and procedure that the Commission should follow for the Village project and provided background on the City's housing need as well as an overview on the infill and transportation mode-shift concepts that will be discussed in greater detail. Senior Planner Hunter then presented on the three separate aspects of the project (permits, environmental review, and development agreement) and closed the presentation with a brief overview of the major issues that have been raised by the public and/or through the review process. Vice Chair Mayer asked for a presentation by the applicant. The project proponent provided a presentation on the details of the project, its amenities, an overview of the need for the proposed purpose-built student housing concept in Arcata and a description of the other student housing projects that his team has developed recently.

The Vice Chair then invited the public to provide testimony. Approximately 29 people provided input on the matter. The comments expressed concern about shading and neighborhood compatibility of the large buildings as well as the possible effect of such a high density of students on the character of their neighborhoods. The concerns were further distilled into the categories of visual impacts, parking and traffic impacts and pedestrian safety. The public testimony portion proceeded until 10:00 at which time the Vice Chair called for a continuance. A discussion on the availability of Commissioners and the applicant team ensued. A second special meeting was discussed for Tuesday December 5th at which the applicant team will be in attendance.

On a motion by Tangney and a second by Barstow, the meeting was unanimously continued to Thursday, November 30, 6:00 p.m. in the Council Chamber to receive additional public testimony, but not engage in discussion or deliberations as the applicant team will not be present.

Ayes: Tangney, McCavour, Orth, Mayer, Baker, Barstow. Noes: None. Absent: Flint. Abstention: None.

RESULT:CONTINUED [6 TO 0]Next: 11/30/2017 6:00 PM
MOVER:Daniel Tangney, Commissioner
SECONDER:John Barstow, Commissioner
AYES:Judith Mayer, Daniel Tangney, John Barstow, Robin Baker, Kristen Orth-Gordinier, Melanie McCavour
Nov 30, 2017 6:00 PM Video Planning Commission Adjourned Meeting

Vice Chair Mayer re-opened the adjourned meeting and asked for testimony from the public. Given the applicant's absence, there was no discussion or deliberation on the part of the Commission. Oral and written public testimony was received.

On a motion by Baker and a second by Orth, the meeting was unanimously continued to 7:00 PM on Tuesday, December 5th.

Ayes: Tangney, McCavour, Mayer, Orth, Baker, Barstow. Noes: None. Absent: Flint. Abstentions: None.

RESULT:CONTINUED [6 TO 0]Next: 12/5/2017 7:00 PM
MOVER:Robin Baker, Commissioner
SECONDER:Kristen Orth-Gordinier, Commissioner
AYES:Judith Mayer, Daniel Tangney, John Barstow, Robin Baker, Kristen Orth-Gordinier, Melanie McCavour
Dec 5, 2017 7:00 PM Video Planning Commission Adjourned Meeting

Vice Chair Mayer opened the public hearing and asked for a brief staff report which Director Loya delivered. The staff report was focused mostly on procedural information and noted that it would be appropriate to enter into discussions on the project with questions of staff and the applicant. Vice Chair Mayer opened a brief public comment period and then asked if the applicant would like to address any of the public comment before the Commission began discussions. Mr. Moon commented on the four major themes that his team gleaned from the previous meetings' public comments which were primarily: Transportation/traffic/parking impacts, bulk and massing of the buildings, aesthetics, and solar/greenhouse gas concerns. He recognizes the community's concerns about the project's potential impacts to the neighborhood in these areas and stated that the development team is willing to reconsider certain aspects of the project, including its overall physical size and number of beds.

In an effort to focus the Commission's discussion, Director Loya suggested that it determine first whether or not the Draft Environmental Impact Report is adequate and then move into the finer details of the project, including the permits. The Commission discussed many issues, but no recommendations were made. Director Loya asked if a straw vote to get a sense of whether the Commission felt that amending the general plan and zoning to allow any type of housing on this site might be appropriate. The Commission agreed that the site would be appropriate for some type of housing use.

At approximately 9:45 p.m., Vice Chair Mayer indicated that she would consider a motion to adjourn. On a motion by Tangney and a second by Baker, the meeting was unanimously adjourned at 10:15 p.m. to the next regular meeting of December 12, 2017, at 6:00 p.m.

Ayes: Tangney, McCavour, Mayer, Orth, Baker, Barstow. Noes: None. Absent: Flint. Abstentions: None.

MOVER:Daniel Tangney, Commissioner
SECONDER:Robin Baker, Commissioner
AYES:Judith Mayer, Daniel Tangney, John Barstow, Robin Baker, Kristen Orth-Gordinier, Melanie McCavour
EXCUSED:Robert Flint
Dec 12, 2017 6:00 PM Video Planning Commission Regular Meeting

Due to a conflict with the following Public Hearing item, Chair Flint recused himself after the vote on the Consent Calendar and Vice Chair Mayer assumed the duties of Chair.

Vice Chair Mayer reopened the adjourned public meeting and asked for a brief staff report. Director Loya shared the revised site plan and architectural elevations that staff had just received, provided additional information on Specific Plans and the City's infill policies, and asked that the Commission, in response to public testimony, extend the public comment period to January 15, 2018. The Commission agreed to the extension.

The Vice Chair asked for any brief testimony from anyone who had not previously testified and several speakers provided comment. Public comment period was closed. Director Loya recommended that the Commission go step-by-step through the Appendix G CEQA checklist as a way to focus its deliberations and discussions on the DEIR. Commissioner McCavour and City Engineer, Doby Class, provided additional information on the topic of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) versus Level of Service (LOS). This exercise resulted in a request of staff to return with additional information on several topics. Vice Chair Mayer allowed additional brief testimony and announced that she would entertain a motion to continue the meeting. On a motion by Tangney and a second by McCavour, the meeting was unanimously continued to Tuesday, December 19th at 6:00 p.m.

Ayes: Tangney, McCavour, Mayer, Orth, and Barstow. Noes: None. Absent: Baker, Flint (Flint excused). Abstentions: None.

RESULT:CONTINUED [5 TO 0]Next: 12/19/2017 6:00 PM
MOVER:Daniel Tangney, Commissioner
SECONDER:Melanie McCavour, Commissioner
AYES:Judith Mayer, Daniel Tangney, John Barstow, Kristen Orth-Gordinier, Melanie McCavour
ABSENT:Robin Baker
Dec 19, 2017 6:00 PM Video Planning Commission Adjourned Special Meeting

Vice Chair Mayer opened the public hearing and requested a staff report. Director Loya provided an overview of the items in the written staff report which were requested by the Commission at its December 12, 2017, meeting. Vice Chair Mayer asked for Commission questions of staff and the applicant, and then allowed a brief period for public testimony.

The Commission deliberated on the main CEQA issues outlined in the staff report and were able to come to agreement on all but Aesthetics and other items. Staff was directed to return with additional information and case law on aesthetics and, specifically, defining a project area or surroundings and how to determine significant impact. On a motion by Tangney and a second by Baker, the item was continued to January 23, 2018.

Yes: Tangney, McCavour, Mayer, Orth, Baker, and Barstow. Noes: None. Abstentions: None. Absent: Flint (Excused).

MOVER:Daniel Tangney, Commissioner
SECONDER:Robin Baker, Commissioner
AYES:Judith Mayer, Daniel Tangney, John Barstow, Robin Baker, Kristen Orth-Gordinier, Melanie McCavour